The Washington Post

Cummings spurs edit of college aid Web sites

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on Jan. 16, 2014. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) spurred a quick edit of the financial aid Web sites of some universities when he charged this week that schools were misleading students about what forms were needed to apply for federal student aid.

The point Cummings wanted to drive home in his letter Monday to Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Only the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is necessary for those students who want federal aid such as Pell grants. As its name indicates, there is no fee to file the FAFSA.

The point many colleges emphasize: Other forms are also necessary for students to qualify for grants from non-federal sources — such as the colleges themselves. Those grants, called institutional aid, are a critical piece of most aid packages. One key form used for this purpose is the Profile application from the College Board. Students must pay a fee to use Profile, but fee waivers are available to those in need.

Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said too often colleges aren’t clear enough about exactly what is required for which type of aid, a possible violation of federal law. He cited 111 schools that he said offered unclear or potentially misleading information. Among them were Georgetown, George Washington and American universities, as well as a variety of big-name schools from around the country, including Harvard University.

Harvard said it takes care to ensure that students know exactly what forms to file and when.

Several schools on the list indicated a willingness to be flexible.

GWU added this sentence to a page labeled Apply for Assistance/Forms: “Students wishing to only be considered for Federal aid need only submit the FAFSA.” A spokeswoman for GWU noted that the university receives “no payment or revenue from the fees paid to the College Board” for Profile submissions.

Bucknell University said it, too, was planning to revise its Web site “to make sure there is no further chance for confusion.”

AU said it was editing a sentence on its Web site to state: “The information on the FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for federal and state need-based aid only.” The university said that 95 percent of need-based grants and scholarships for its students come from AU sources of funding.

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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