Congressman Criticizes BC, Other Schools For Unclear FAFSA Policies

More than 100 U.S. colleges and universities have been accused of misleading students about financial aid application policies, specifically regarding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Boston College is one of the 111 universities in question.

On Monday, Feb. 3, U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who heads the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claiming that more than half of the 200 schools reviewed in a Congressional study on financial aid application policies have either explicitly required applicants to submit forms other than the FAFSA or failed to make clear that students only need to submit the FAFSA for federal student aid consideration.

“Instead, these institutions appear to be establishing additional requirements for students to complete costly additional forms, including the fee-based PROFILE form developed by the College Board, to be considered for any financial aid,” the letter reads. “Congress banned this practice in 1992 because it creates undue hurdles for students seeking federal student aid.”

On Boston College’s official financial aid information page for prospective students, which was updated on Feb. 6, three days after Cummings’ letter, there is currently a paragraph that explicitly clarifies the purpose of the FAFSA. The University’s statement regarding the FAFSA on its current website for prospective students is as follows:

“To apply for federal and/or student aid, you need to complete just the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA),” it reads. “Federal aid includes Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Directs Loans, both subsidized and unsubsidized, Perkins loans, Nursing loans, and Work-Study. State aid varies by state. Once the FAFSA is completed, you may be selected by the Federal Processor for a process called verification, which means you will have to provide your actual tax data on the FAFSA through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.”

The site continues, clarifying that the process for institutional aid is separate and requires different forms.

“Please note that by completing only the FAFSA, Boston College is not able to determine your eligibility for institutional need-based grants,” the webpage reads. “In order to be considered for all institutional need-based aid as well as al federal and state aid, you must complete the FAFSA and the forms listed below, if applicable to your situation.”

Prior to Feb. 6, 2014, however, that same webpage did not include those paragraphs. The archived webpage, which was last updated in April of 2013, consisted of only a list of eight forms required from the University without a written explanation as to which forms were necessary for federal aid and how individual documents were used as criteria for University-based or other institutional aid.

To be considered for federal student aid-including federal grants, loans, and work-study programs-prospective college students in the U.S. are only required to submit the FAFSA, which can be done online for free.

Cummings identified in an evaluation of 200 universities that 111 of them were in breach of the Higher Education Act by neglecting to make clear that extraneous forms and the fees associated with them are not needed to qualify for federal aid.
The Higher Education Act was originally created in 1965 to establish federal student aid programs and is the defining piece of legislature that governs how federal dollars are allocated to college students. The Act has since been re-authored nine times.
When Congress passed amendments to the Act for the seventh time in 1992, it created a single, free form to be completed by students seeking financial aid.

“These statutes prohibit higher education institutions from using any forms other than the FAFSA to determine eligibility for federal financial aid,” reads a section of Cummings’ letter on the background of the 1992 reforms to the Higher Education Act.

Before revisions were made to the Act’s legislative language in 1992, six different forms could be used to assess student eligibility for federal financial aid, five of which included a fee. In his letter, Cummings references the House Committee on Education as having described the previous legislation as “bewildering complexity.”

While renovated policies incorporated in the 1992 legislation established the FAFSA as the sole determinant form of federal student aid, institutions are still able to use other forms, namely the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, to determine eligibility for non-federal aid.

Cummings’ letter states that more than 200 institutions currently use the supplemental, fee-inclusive form CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which was developed by the College Board.

“This form asks much more detailed and complicated financial questions than the FAFSA,” the letter reads.

To submit the PROFILE, students are required to pay $25 to the first institution and $16 for each additional institution. While services are available to students for fees to be waived in certain circumstances, Cummings referenced the waiver process as not being clear for applicants.

The letter also cited a recent study, which found that 79 percent of college applicants apply to at least three institutions, and 29 percent apply to at least seven, suggesting that nearly a third of the students surveyed could end up paying more than $100 to apply for financial aid from universities requiring the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE.

Among the list of institutions identified by Cummings and the Committee are Boston-area schools Harvard College, Boston University, and Northeastern University, along with Jesuit universities Fordham, Georgetown, and Loyola Maryland.

Schools like Harvard have been employing language that specifies students must submit numerous forms, including the PROFILE, to be considered for any financial aid at all. Although Cummings’ report concedes that other university materials, including third-party websites or other university-published materials on financial aid could make these policies more plain, students may only consult the same materials the Committee did during its investigation-potentially discouraging prospective applicants.

University Spokesman Jack Dunn was unavailable for immediate comment, and members of the Dean of Enrollment Management Office could not be reached for a statement before print.

February 10, 2014
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