College admissions is already a high-stakes, daunting process. There are so many moving parts students have to deal with: essays, letters of recommendation, financial aid, interviews, standardized testing — not to mention keeping up with high school classes and activities.
In my previous role as a college counselor for Bottom Line (a college access and success program for first-generation, low-income students), I worked with a cohort of high school students from start to finish in their application process. I was there to answer questions, give responsible advice, help make college accessible, and ease the stress of the process. My students were often worried about making mistakes -- as evidenced by the countless frantic phone calls and emails I would receive -- and now I have to wonder if their biggest mistake was trusting that their applications would be reviewed fairly.
I asked several of the students I worked with what they made of the situation.
For Kimberlee Cruz, a student I counseled in high school and college, having to worry about the FAFSA position would have been a huge concern. “It would have stressed me out, to worry that my fifth choice could have given me terrible aid just because I didn’t list them first. What if I didn’t get into my first choice? Would that mean I would have no options with good aid?”
Financial aid was the most important part of the application process for Cruz, a junior at Worcester State University, as well as the part that was most confusing. “Regardless of the position, you’re interested in the school; otherwise, it wouldn’t be on your FAFSA.”
Most of the students I have worked with wouldn’t think twice about the order they listed colleges on the FAFSA. For some, sure, it was probably in the order of their preference, but for others, maybe the order was alphabetical, geographical, FAFSA code numerical (O.K., probably not that last one, but you get the idea).
And why should they think twice? There’s not any indication on FAFSA that the order matters or that it will be shared.
Daniel Figueiredo, another former student, was shocked to find out that some colleges use information in this manner. “I think it’s completely unethical. To infer something like preference based on a list, it’s sneaky and can really mess up someone’s future -- it shouldn’t be evaluated.”
Figueiredo, a senior at Worcester State, said that he applied to a few reach colleges at the last minute, institutions he wasn’t sure he could get into but wanted to try. “I thought, what the heck, I’ll do it. Maybe I had a chance, but I put them farther down on my FAFSA list since I added them to my list later than some more attainable schools. I did get waitlisted for two of them, and now I’m wondering if the FAFSA position played a role.”
What students should focus on with the FAFSA is having accurate information, having all their colleges added, and meeting all of the priority deadlines. Financial aid can be confusing enough for students and their families, and for many, the weight of their future completely rests on the aid packages that schools offer.
Throwing FAFSA position in the mix is another step for applicants to remember, another potential barrier to access. And I wonder, would an alphabetical or random order even make a difference, or would schools interpret the list as preferential anyway?
Maybe it’s just me, but a college taking its FAFSA position into consideration for admissions and aid decisions seems like a popularity contest. I know that colleges want to fill their classes, that admissions recruiters have goals to meet, that everyone wants the best and the brightest to want to attend their institution. But holding a FAFSA position against a student -- especially since many students don’t realize that something so arbitrary could greatly affect them -- seems in direct opposition to the ultimate goal of getting students to attend and graduate from college.
If FAFSA continues to share this information, colleges engaging in this practice really need to reconsider their position on student access and success. And students thinking about applying to these institutions might want to reconsider as well.
Ali Lincoln is a project director for TVP Communications, a national public relations agency with expertise in higher education.
Several states have explored the possibility of so-called “free community college” programs, which would cover the cost of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates who meet certain other eligibility criteria. Tennessee was the first state to pass such a plan, making first-time, full-time students who file the FAFSA and complete eight hours of community service each semester eligible for two years of tuition and fee waivers. Legislators in Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas have proposed similar plans, although none of those have been adopted at this time.
The most recent plan for free community college comes from the city of Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would cover up to three years of tuition and fees for eligible graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. In order to be eligible, students must have a 3.0 high school grade-point average, not require remediation in math or English, and file the FAFSA. (It appears that part-time students will be eligible for the program, unlike in the state proposals.) The district estimates that about 3,000 students would qualify for the program out of the roughly 20,000 students who graduate each year.
Looking more broadly, these “free college” programs will give very little additional money to students with the greatest financial need. In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.
Tuition and Fees Not Covered by Grant Aid at Community Colleges, by Income
Source: 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study
Note: Sample includes dependent students attending community colleges.
Costs Are More Than Tuition and Fees
At community colleges, tuition and fees are a small portion of the total cost of attendance. Students also have to pay for books and other supplies, a place to live, and everyday expenses necessary to live while also being a student. While some argue that living costs shouldn’t be subsidized by financial aid because they are also necessary to live, being able to cover these costs is critical to being successful in college. The “free college” programs do not cover any of the other expenses, meaning that students must turn to loans or self-support in order to finance their education.
Only 2 percent of community college students receiving Pell Grants in the NPSAS have their full cost of attendance met by grant aid. Four in 10 Pell recipients have to cover less than $5,000 in costs, while an additional 37 percent have to cover between $5,000 and $10,000. The median student with a zero expected family contribution has to come up with just over $5,000 to cover estimated living costs — something that the Chicago program and other similar programs do nothing to alleviate.
Defining “College Ready”
Unlike some other last-dollar scholarship programs, Chicago’s program has a substantial merit component. The requirements of a 3.0 high school grade point average and testing into college-level math and English leave out the vast majority of community college students. Ninety-four percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates required remediation in math in 2009, suggesting that very few students are able to qualify for the city’s program. About 40 percent of community college students in the NPSAS had taken at least one remedial course, with slightly higher rates for Pell recipients. This means that other states or cities considering merit components are likely to reduce the potential pool of recipients — and reduce their costs.
Making grant receipt contingent on placement test scores could potentially have negative effects on students who end up in remediation. Research by Jennie Brand, Fabian Pfeffer, and Sara Goldrick-Rab using Chicago Public Schools data has found that attending community colleges results in a higher bachelor’s-degree completion rate for disadvantaged students, many of whom are unlikely to enroll in college without the option of a community college. Students who expect to get a scholarship under the Chicago program but are then deemed ineligible due to their test score may be more likely to drop out of college due to the disappointment of not getting the award. It is important to note this effect could even exist for students who would get no additional money under the Chicago program — as long as the perception is that the program is giving them money that is actually being provided by the Pell Grant.
How to Improve “Free College” Programs
“Free college” programs do have some positive attributes, in spite of the limitations noted above. Some students from middle-income families will get additional financial aid as a result of the program. But the concept of “free college” could even benefit Pell recipients who are unlikely to see any additional financial aid under the program. Research has shown that making students aware of their financial aid eligibility results in increased college attendance rates, and similar effects could result due to the programs' publicity. For those reasons, it is important that the Chicago and Tennessee programs be rigorously evaluated to see who benefits, and for what groups of students the program passes a cost-effectiveness test.
These programs should also provide some additional financial aid to students whose Pell Grants cover tuition and fees in order to cover living costs. Even a $500 award at the beginning of the semester would help low-income students manage upfront costs like books and rent payments, and could be paid for by slightly reducing awards for students who are not Pell-eligible. The program would still give larger benefits to financially squeezed middle-income families, but students with the greatest financial need would also see some additional money.
It is also important to consider extending the programs to returning adult students, who typically do not qualify for these programs. The median age of community college students is approximately 23, and a program that provides assistance to these students (most of whom have exceptional financial need) could prove to be very beneficial. Finally, it is important to publicize these programs (and their conditions) widely so students and their families know that community college can be an affordable, high-quality educational option.
Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) is an assistant professor in the department of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University and blogs at Kelchen on Education. All opinions are his own.
Scores of colleges and universities are taking the Obama administration up on its offer to waive certain federal rules for institutions that want to test out competency-based education and other new models of higher education.
More than 75 institutions told the U.S. Department of Education before last week’s deadline that they want to participate in its “experimental sites” program, according to spokeswoman Denise Horn. Some of the colleges indicated interest in more than one type of experiment, which include prior learning assessment, competency-based education, high school counseling, and Pell Grant distribution.
Horn said the department would be approving colleges to participate in the program “over the coming weeks.”
A federal court on Thursday ruled that the Obama administration had again failed to adequately justify its ban on colleges paying recruiters bonuses that are tied to students' graduation. The court also faulted the Department of Education for not properly addressing the effect the rule may have on minority students.
The judge, Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, sided with the for-profit college association challenging the rule, but she denied its request to block the regulations, which remain in effect. Collyer told the department to come up with a better explanation for the rule and address the impact it has on diversity initiatives.
An appeals court in 2012 largely upheld the administration’s package of stricter incentive compensation rules that were aimed at cracking down on abusive practices in the for-profit industry. But that court singled out the specific ban on compensation tied to the number of students graduating a program, ruling that the department had not offered a legally sufficient basis for it.
The department argued that colleges were doling out bonuses to recruiters based on graduation rates in order to make an end run around the clear federal prohibition on compensation based on enrollment numbers.
But the judge wasn’t swayed by that argument, writing in Thursday's opinion that the department used faulty logic and failed to provide sufficient evidence for its position.
The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the for-profit group that sued, said it was pleased with the judge’s ruling. Sally Stroup, the group’s executive vice president of government relations and general counsel, said in a statement that the department “should correct its errors by suspending the flawed regulations and engaging in a new rulemaking.”
The department on Thursday did not say how it planned to proceed in light of the court's decision. “We are studying the ruling and discussing our options for addressing it," said Dorie Nolt, the department's press secretary.