Lawmaker Misleads Students in Critique of College Financial Aid Practices
This week, the New York Times published a story reporting that Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland has asked the Department of Education to investigate whether top colleges are misleading financial aid candidates about the requirements to apply for federal financial aid. My colleagues, (fellow admissions and college finance consultants at College Coach), and I have reviewed his concerns and while we agree that he may technically have a point, we feel he is both exaggerating the issue and not giving these colleges the credit they deserve for supporting the educations of talented financial aid eligible students.
The FAFSA Isn’t the Only Application for Financial Aid
At issue is a federal regulation that defines the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the FAFSA) as the only application that colleges may use to award federal financial aid funds. Colleges may not charge a fee to review a student’s FAFSA, nor may they require a student to provide any other forms as part of the college’s review of their application for federal financial aid. Representative Cummings claims that colleges that also require a second application for financial aid, the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, are misleading students into thinking that they cannot apply for federal financial aid without submitting the CSS Profile as well. Over 300 colleges, mostly private colleges, use the CSS Profile as their application for their own financial aid funds.
Representative Cummings is correct that some colleges’ financial aid instructions are not clear. The New York Times article points out that Bucknell University’s website, for example, states that the CSS Profile “… must be filed if you would like to apply for need-based aid.” We agree that this does not make it clear that students who only want to apply for federal (and perhaps state) financial aid funds do not need to file the CSS Profile.
But is there really an issue here? Is there enough federal and state financial aid available to each college student that most students can cover their costs at a school like Bucknell without filing the CSS Profile? Absolutely not!
What Should Low Income Students Do to Get Maximum Financial Assistance?
The maximum amount of federal financial aid funds a student from a very low-income household is likely to receive at a college that participates in every possible federal financial aid program is about $18,000 per year. This figure is the sum of the maximum amounts of various federal financial aid programs, including Pell Grants and Direct Loans (which are entitlements), Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, Perkins Loans, and College Work/Study funds (which are not entitlements and are not available at every college). Bucknell, and most of the other 110 colleges Representative Cummings calls out, charge over $50,000 in tuition and fees, room and board, and other educational expenses. A student who only files the FAFSA to secure federal funds will be tens of thousands of dollars short in his ability to pay for his education at one of these excellent schools.
So in reality, the student will still need to complete the CSS Profile at these colleges to secure the maximum amount of funding the colleges offer. A student from a low-income household could receive an even greater financial aid award from the college’s own funds than the amount of federal money she might secure through the FAFSA.
Representative Cummings’s main issue—that these 111 colleges are not accurately explaining that the CSS Profile is not required if the student is solely interested in federal funding—is accurate. However, he fails to acknowledge that students who complete only the FAFSA may lose out on thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars of non-federal funds provided by the colleges. Further, students who are likely to receive federal grants—those from very low income households—could potentially receive much more money from the colleges themselves if they also file the CSS Profile.