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.
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