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Rep. Elijah Cummings

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Dozens of colleges and universities have changed the wording of their financial aid web pages since a Democratic Congressman last week accused more than 100 institutions of misleading students about the requirements for obtaining federal grants and loans.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said last week that his office had identified 111 cases of colleges either requiring students to submit fee-based forms for federal student aid or insinuating that such forms were needed to access that aid. He asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan to meet with him to “discuss how the department can address this issue by warning schools that this conduct may violate federal law.”

Colleges are allowed to require students to fill out the CSS Profile to be considered for their own institutional aid programs, but they can’t attach such a condition on students seeking only federal aid. Federal law requires institutions to accept and process the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at no charge.

Many institutions swiftly altered their financial aid sites in response to the letter.

Bucknell University, which Cummings cited specifically in his letter, decided within 24 hours to revamp the wording and organization of its online instructions for applying for financial aid, officials there said.

Until last week, Bucknell listed the fee-based CSS Profile form as the first item on a checklist for prospective students applying for aid. “If you do not file the CSS PROFILE on time, we cannot guarantee that any aid can be awarded to you,” the university’s site said, according to a screen capture by Cummings’s staff.

The site now lists the FAFSA as the first item on the checklist and clarifies that the federal form “will not change your eligibility for Bucknell need-based financial aid.” It also now says that a failure to complete the CSS Profile disqualifies a student from obtaining “any Bucknell need-based aid,” not “any aid.”

Bill Conley, the university’s vice president for enrollment management, said that although he was happy to make the changes once Cummings’s letter brought to his attention that the language could be confusing, he said he thought some of the concerns were exaggerated.

“Based on the behaviors of our families, in practice it was not confusing,” he said. “We have been seeing the number of applicants from low-socioeconomic status households increasing. That, to me, was saying that there is no confusion there.”

He also said that in surveying peer institutions’ sites, he found a wide range of how colleges laid out their aid requirements.  

“If the department were to provide a template or something like that, we would be happy to comply with that,” he said.

At least several dozen other institutions tweaked the language on their sites in the past week in response to Cummings’s letter.

Northwestern, for instance, duplicated and placed higher up on its website one sentence: “If you wish only to apply for federal aid, you just need to complete and submit the FAFSA.”

Brown University changed the heading of its aid application requirements from “Applying for Financial Aid is a two step process” to “Applying for both Federal and Brown University Institutional Financial Aid is a two step process.”

“We are pleased that a number of institutions have changed the language on their websites, and we hope that other schools will follow suit,” Cummings said in a statement. “We are interested in learning what actions the Department of Education can take, but we would prefer these schools take action on their own.”

The CSS Profile is a College Board product that colleges use to dive deeper into families’ financial circumstances before awarding institutional aid. The form asks more complex questions and charges students $25 for the first college to which they apply and $16 for each additional institution.

But critics of the form say that it can be a barrier for low-income students applying for financial aid.

“It's not just a question of changing language on your website,” said Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst for the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. “If you're really looking out for students' interest you wouldn't have this application to begin with.”

She said that colleges that use the CSS Profile because they are concerned about awarding institutional aid dollars to some wealthier families whose full resources may not be captured by the FAFSA should instead require a simple institutional questionnaire. The fees associated with the Profile form, she said, dissuade low-income students from applying to all of the institutions that may be in a position to award them substantial amounts of money.

Princeton University, for instance, has adopted such an approach, she said. The university has its own institutional aid form that does not require a fee. 

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