The Importance of Clarity: Institutional Website Descriptions Cause Congressman to Question Financial Aid Application Processes

February 3, 2014

By: Philip J. Zaccheo

higher-ed-financial-aidSince 1992, the Higher Education Act has required colleges and universities to determine applicants’ eligibility for federal aid programs only through use of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  On February 3, 2014, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in which he identified 111 colleges and universities he believes to be requiring applicants to complete forms other than the FAFSA to apply for federal aid. The information set forth in the letter was gleaned from a survey of institutional websites, many of which, the letter claims, reflect the use of forms other than the FAFSA (such as the College Board’s CSS Profile) to determine eligibility for federal IV aid, or, at a minimum, provide unclear guidance to applicants as to whether additional forms are required.  In reality, the majority of institutions are likely administering programs correctly, requiring applicants to complete only the FAFSA for federal aid purposes but using other data collection tools for institutional and other non-federal aid purposes (and encouraging submission of the additional information in order to maximize accessibility).  However, institutions’ descriptive materials may not clearly reflect these compliant practices. It is not clear what, if anything, the Education Department may do in response to Rep. Cummings’ letter.  Although it appears that Rep. Cummings is suggesting only an admonishment to institutions, colleges and universities should use this opportunity to ensure that their website disclosures and other descriptive materials made available to applicants clearly identify that only the FAFSA is required for federal aid purposes (and, of course, that they are administering the application process in a corresponding manner).