• September 21, 2014

111 Colleges May Be Violating Law by Requiring Aid Forms, Lawmaker Says

More than 100 colleges may be violating a federal law that bars institutions from requiring applicants for federal student aid to submit forms other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to an investigation by Congressional Democrats.

In a letter sent to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, identifies 111 institutions that "appear to be establishing additional requirements for students to complete costly additional forms," including the College Board's CSIC/Financial Aid Profile.

In the letter, Mr. Cummings requests a meeting with Mr. Duncan to discuss how to ensure colleges are "not creating improper and unnecessary barriers to federal financial assistance."

Of the 111 colleges named in the letter, 58 explicitly state that applicants must submit the Profile form to secure any financial aid. The remainder direct applicants to submit both the Fafsa and the Profile to obtain aid, though they do not specify what each form is used to assess. The letter includes links to screenshots of web pages on which each institution provides financial-aid information.

'Changing the Language'

More than 200 institutions use the Profile to evaluate students' eligibility for institutional aid. The form asks much more detailed and complicated financial questions than does the Fafsa, and students must pay a fee to submit it. While the fees—$25 for one institution and $16 for each additional institution—can be waived, the waiver process is "not transparent or clear," according to the letter.

Many institutions singled out by the investigation are elite, "high-tuition, high-aid" colleges that offer generous institutional-aid packages to low-income students. The list includes several top-tier liberal-arts institutions, including Amherst College, and all but one member of the Ivy League (Princeton University).

The letter criticizes five institutions by name, including Bucknell University, whose website is quoted as saying: "If you do not file the CSS Profile on time, we cannot guarantee that any aid can be awarded to you. … this form MUST be filed if you would like to apply for need-based aid."

Andy Hirsch, director of media relations at Bucknell, said the Pennsylvania institution did not mean to imply that submitting the Profile form was required to receive federal aid. Still, he said, "we don't want to leave any suggestion otherwise on our financial-aid website, and so we will be changing the language there to do our best to make sure there is no further chance for confusion."

'Warn Institutions'

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said he doubted the colleges were withholding federal aid from students who had failed to complete the Profile, but he acknowledged that some of their websites could be clearer.

"If there is actually a practice where schools would not award federal aid, then those schools should be held accountable," he said. "More likely it’s needing to be more clear on the consumer-information pieces."

Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst at the New American Foundation who has criticized colleges for requiring students to complete the Profile, welcomed the Congressional scrutiny. She said she hoped Mr. Duncan would take note of the investigation and "warn institutions that they are out of compliance."

"Making it seem like students must fill out a separate, expensive, and overly complex financial-aid form in order to receive federal financial aid is shameful," she said. "Students shouldn't have to go through such a duplicative process when applying for financial aid."

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