FAFSA Transparency

The federal government should not be sharing a list of colleges that students are interested in with other colleges, according to admissions group.
October 6, 2014

A national association of high school counselors and college admissions officers wants the federal government to stop providing student information to colleges that some institutions are using to disadvantage students who apply for admission and financial aid.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling is concerned about how some college admissions offices are using information that students provide to the federal government, which, unbeknownst to students, is passed on to all the colleges they are interested in. Most American students seeking financial aid fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. When they do, they are asked to submit the names of up to 10 colleges to which they are applying.

That list has turned out to be valuable to college admissions offices and private enrollment management consultants: They have discovered that the order in which students list institutions on the FAFSA corresponds strongly with students’ order of preference. Students may be much less interested in attending colleges that they put farther down on the list.

Now, some colleges use this “FAFSA position” when considering students’ applications for admission, which may affect decisions about admission, placement on a wait list or the size of a financial aid award.

But students are never warned about how colleges may use the information. And while colleges think students are listing the colleges in order of preference, that may not even be true.

NACAC’s own guidelines for best practices tell admissions officers not to ask applicants about where else they have applied. But the federal government has long provided colleges this back-door way of seeing the information for students who received financial aid.

“While students may volunteer this information, the association believes that a student's right to keeping such information private is an integral part of maintaining  a fair admission process,” NACAC said in an email to its members. The association said it had confirmed that some colleges are using students' FAFSA lists “without their knowledge or consent to make informed guesses” about their preferences “for recruitment and admission purposes.”

In the email to its members, sent on Thursday, NACAC said the U.S. Department of Education should not be providing this information to colleges at all or, at the very least, they should inform students that the information is being sent to colleges. If the department continues to send the information at all, NACAC said, the colleges on the list should be randomized or alphabetized so the list can’t be used by admissions offices or enrollment management consultants to predict student behavior.

Colleges are able to get information on students’ other choices through different means, including some lead generation services, according to NACAC. What has troubled some people about the use of the FAFSA is that the form provides no indication that its information may be used against students. And the admissions offices using the FAFSA this way are basing their assumptions on a single, non-financial, non-academic question.

The predictive significance of the FAFSA position can be somewhat stunning to those not familiar with the admissions process.

Kevin Crockett, the president and CEO of Noel-Levitz, a enrollment consulting firm, said the information is “pretty powerful.” Among the firm’s private college clients, he’s found that 62 percent of students who list a college first on the FAFSA will attend if they are admitted. If they list a college second, 21 percent are likely to enroll if admitted. That drops to about 15 percent if they listed it third and hovers in the 10 percent range for the other seven spots.

Crockett said colleges use the information to focus their efforts, but, he said, “that data should not be used for the awarding of financial aid and admissions decisions.”

David Hawkins, NACAC's director of public policy and research, said last year that the colleges likely to be doing this are private colleges that are trying to improve their “yield,” which is the percentage of admitted applicants who decide to attend. Hawkins did not provide the names of any institutions that placed students on a wait list based on FAFSA position, but he confirmed that some are.

The U.S. Education Department, which administers the FAFSA, said last year it will review the longstanding practice of sharing the college list with every college to which a student applies. NACAC’s email comes as the department is asking for public comments about how to improve the entire FAFSA.

W. Kent Barnds, the vice president of enrollment at Augustana College, a 2,500-student liberal arts college in Illinois, said he is not aware of any college using the information other than “as an additional tool to help predict yield and enrollment.”

At Augustana, for instance, officials use FAFSA position to help determine which prospective students to offer aid to first, but not in deciding whether to admit students or to change the size of the aid package.

“Most of this has been misrepresented and misunderstood by NACAC members, and many in the media,” he said in an email. “In my view, this is ‘member-driven’ by conspiracy theorists, rather than by people who actually understand how this information is used and adds value.”


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