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Lawmaker says colleges are misleading on aid requirements

Posted by Leslie Anderson  February 4, 2014 11:44 AM

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New York Times Syndicate

Many top colleges are misleading applicants about the paperwork needed to seek financial aid, possibly violating federal law and costing students extra money, a congressman said Monday.

The Department of Education said it was reviewing the allegations by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, based on an investigation by committee staff members.

Under federal law, college students need to fill out just one form to apply for several kinds of aid from the federal government, including Pell grants and loans: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA. Before granting aid from their own coffers, hundreds of colleges require both FAFSA and a form created by the College Board, called the CSS/Financial Aid Profile.

The College Board’s form is much more complex than FAFSA, and unlike the FAFSA, it is not free, carrying a $25 fee for the first college a student sends it to and $16 for each additional one, though the fee can be waived for low-income families.

The problem, Cummings said, is that the instructions on many colleges’ websites give the incorrect impression that both forms are required for federal aid. In a letter released Monday, he asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan for help in making sure that colleges “are not creating improper and unnecessary barriers to the federal assistance that is so critical to enabling students to pursue their academic and professional dreams.”

Bucknell University’s site says of the College Board profile, “This form must be filed if you would like to apply for need-based aid,” without explaining that in fact, federal aid relies strictly on FAFSA.

Hamilton College’s website lists the Feb. 15 deadlines for submitting both FAFSA and the College Board profile, and tells prospective students, “You must meet the deadlines in order to receive full consideration for financial aid.”

Andy Hirsch, a Bucknell spokesman, said the university would change the wording it uses in response to the complaint.

“We do not intend for our language to suggest that the CSS form is required by the federal government,” he said.

In all, the committee staff identified 111 schools whose instructions were misleading, Cummings said, including many of the top schools in the country, like Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame and every member of the Ivy League except Princeton. It also singled out the University of Southern California and Bard College as schools that clearly explain the distinctions between the two applications, and different sources of aid.

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