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It’s after January 1, and if you are a high school senior, you and your parents will be completing the 2015-2016 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) very soon (if you haven’t already!). The FAFSA is a centralized application that allows you to complete the form and send its results to up to ten schools at a time.

After studying their data, some colleges have determined that the order in which students list colleges on the FAFSA is strongly correlated to the student’s college preferences (e.g., if a student lists a school first on their FAFSA, it is more likely his/her first choice than a school lower on the list).  And there has been some recent media attention  about colleges using their placement on a student’s FAFSA list to influence admission and scholarship and aid decisions.

Here’s what this might mean to you. The first concern (if you want to call it that) is that if you list a college first on the FAFSA, that college might be more likely to admit you because they are trying to improve their “yield,” i.e. the percentage of students who accept their offer of admission. Conversely,  if you include a school toward the middle or end of your list, the college might be less likely to admit you, because they think you’re not as interested in attending.  Finally, there is some concern that schools award less aid to students who list them first on their FAFSA  because those students have a strong desire to attend the school and will not need as much aid to entice them to enroll.

At College Coach, we think that the use of FAFSA order in admission and aid decisions is exaggerated, and that most colleges only use the information to try to predict their yield results.  However, since these concerns were brought to the Department of Education by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Department has added some language to the FAFSA instructions to let you know that the order of colleges listed does not matter for federal aid purposes. They have also given you more clear instructions about how to move the order of schools around when you complete the online FAFSA.

To err on the cautious side, when it comes to listing schools on your FAFSA, at College Coach we recommend that you take the following steps:

  • Check to see if your state grant agency requires that you list an in-state college first on the FAFSA to receive consideration for your state’s grant program. Here’s a good way to learn who the state agency is in your state: http://www.nasfaa.org/students/State_Financial_Aid_Programs.aspx
  • After that, we suggest that you list your schools alphabetically. The colleges should recognize this as an alphabetical list and not a ranking of your preference for certain schools.
  • We urge you not to worry too much about this. In an informal poll of our College Coach experts, none of our former employers changed an admission or scholarship/aid decision based on the position of their institution on the FAFSA.

Also in response to concerns voiced by NACAC, the Department of Education has added language to the FAFSA instructions to let you know that colleges to whom you submit the FAFSA can see names of the other schools you have listed.  They suggest that if you don’t want schools to see the other colleges you are applying to, you can submit your FAFSA to one school at a time. While this is possible, it will be very cumbersome if you are applying to several schools. You will have to wait 1-2 days between submissions to remove one school and add another, so submitting a FAFSA this way will require some advance planning (to avoid missing deadlines) and attention to detail. At College Coach, we don’t think it’s worth the hassle.

While we appreciate the Department of Education’s attempts to be more transparent in the FAFSA instructions, we think the process of applying to and financing college is stressful enough and how your colleges are listed on the FAFSA should not add to your stress. Our best advice – meet (and beat) deadlines, provide information that is as accurate as possible, and stay in touch with the colleges’ financial aid offices if your family has any extenuating financial circumstances. They really are working hard to assist you!



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Written by Kathy Ruby
Kathy Ruby is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Before joining College Coach, Kathy was as a Senior Financial Aid Officer at St. Olaf College and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.