Congressman: Many colleges are misleading students about financial aid requirements


Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) says federal law makes clear that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the only paperwork needed to apply for that kind of aid. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A prominent House Democrat charged Monday that more than 100 colleges and universities, including some in the nation’s capital, are providing students with unclear or potentially misleading information about what forms they must submit to apply for federal financial aid.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, identified the schools, with excerpts from their Web sites, after a staff investigation that began last summer.

Cummings said federal law makes it clear that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, is the only form needed to apply for that kind of aid. A well-known example of federal aid is the Pell grant for students in financial need.

Often colleges require students to submit additional forms — which carry a fee — to qualify for grants from the institutions themselves or from other entities.

But too often, Cummings said, universities fail to spell out clearly what is required for which type of aid. He said that failure can leave students with the false impression that FAFSA is not the only application needed for federal aid.

“Congress banned this practice in 1992 because it creates undue hurdles for students seeking federal student aid,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Cummings said schools that post misleading or incomplete information should be warned that they are potentially in violation of federal law.

In the letter, Cummings cited Harvard College, part of Harvard University, saying that it requires both the FAFSA and a College Board financial aid application called Profile “for ‘all applicants’ without any explanation of use or purpose.” Students using Profile must pay $25 for the first college they are targeting and $16 for each subsequent college. Fee waivers are available for those in need.

Harvard said its financial aid officers “work directly with every applicant to ensure that they file the correct forms at the correct times and receive the aid — both federal and Harvard-funded — which they deserve.” The university’s statement continued: “We continuously review the information we provide to applicants and students — both online and in many daily interactions with financial aid officers — and will continue working to ensure that our students have the clear guidance they need.”

Bucknell University, another school that was criticized by Cummings for posting what he viewed as misleading information about financial aid, said it would change the language of its Web site “to make sure there is no further chance for confusion.”

Cummings also took issue with language on the Web sites of American, George Washington and Georgetown universities and the College of William and Mary, among others.

Here are excerpts Cummings cited from his staff’s investigation:

AU: “The information on the FAFSA is used in conjunction with the Profile to determine your eligibility for federal, state and institutional need-based aid.”

GWU: “In order to be considered, you must submit the CSS Profile and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).”

Georgetown: “All first-year undergraduates must submit: Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); CSS/Financial Aid Profile; Tax returns; IRS Data Retrieval Tool or Transcript.”

●William and Mary: “Every student applying to the College is encouraged to apply for financial aid, and the first step is the completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Entering freshmen and transfer students will also need to complete the CSS Profile.”

Henry Broaddus, dean of admissions and associate provost for enrollment at William and Mary, said the public college in Williamsburg, Va., is sensitive to issues raised about the cost of the Profile application.

“Furthermore, we would never deny federal aid to anyone submitting only a FAFSA, but it is in the best interest of any student with financial need to submit both,” Broaddus said. “We will be reviewing our Web site to make sure this is clear.”

AU, GWU and Georgetown had no immediate reply Monday evening to e-mailed requests for comment.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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