The U.S. Department of Education plans to end its longstanding practice of giving colleges certain student information that some institutions may use against students as they apply for admission and financial aid.
Starting next year, the department will no longer provide colleges the entire list of institutions that a student submits when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA.
The federal government currently grants colleges access to that information, including the order in which students list the colleges where they are interested in applying.
Some college admissions offices and enrollment management consultants have found that information to be valuable because they can glean students’ relative interest in enrolling at different colleges -- and essentially, in some cases, use that information against the students' interests.
Denise Horn, a department spokeswoman, confirmed the policy change on Thursday, writing in an email that officials believed that some colleges used the information “in a manner that is not appropriate.”
“For example, some colleges use that information in their admissions decision process -- looking to see if any of their competitors were listed,” she said. “Similarly, some use the information to determine if and how much institutional aid to provide -- why spend money if the student would likely come to my school anyway.”
The policy change comes after Inside Higher Ed reported in 2013 that some colleges were denying admission and possibly reducing financial aid to students based on the FAFSA information the department was sharing with colleges. The National Association for College Admission Counseling and some financial aid experts called on the department to make the change.
A study released earlier this year found that some moderately selective colleges seemed to reduce aid to students based on how they ordered colleges on the FAFSA, though it did not find evidence that the practice was widespread.
Until this year, the FAFSA provided students with no warning that the government was passing along the entire list of colleges they submit to all the colleges they are interested in. The department last year changed the form to inform students about the sharing of their information. However, the current form does not explicitly say that colleges get to see the order in which students list institutions.
The policy change will be finalized after a 60-day public comment period that began this week and once the White House’s Office of Management and Budget gives final approval to the form.
The department plans to stop sharing the “FAFSA position” information with colleges starting with the forms that are processed this coming January for aid that will be awarded during the 2016-17 school year.
Although colleges will no longer have access to the information, the department plans to continue to provide state grant agencies with access to students’ college preferences on the FAFSA.
Frank Ballmann, director of federal relations at the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, said that states urged the department to continue sharing that information with them.
"We have found it's very predictive of enrollment,” Ballmann said. State agencies have found that students tend to enroll at the first college they list on the FAFSA more than 70 percent of the time, he said.
Several states, such as Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey, set aside grant awards for students based on whether they list a participating in-state institution first on the FAFSA form, according to Ballmann. About 10 additional states use the students’ ordering of colleges on the FAFSA for planning and budgeting how many state grant awards they may need to award.
In states where the grant aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, students could miss out on aid by listing a college lower down on the FAFSA.
The FAFSA has, for at least several years, informed students that the order in which they list colleges will be seen by state grant agencies.
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