Boston College updated the guidelines on its financial aid application information webpage on Thursday, Feb. 6, after the University was named in a Feb. 3 letter from U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as one of several institutes of higher education potentially violating The Higher Education Act.
Cummings’ letter claimed that more than 100 colleges and universities reviewed in a Congressional study had either required applicants to submit forms other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to be considered for financial aid or failed to make it explicitly clear that only the FAFSA was necessary for students to be considered for federal student aid. BC was one of the 111 schools named in the letter. Three days later, the following paragraph-which was not present on a previous version of the page, according to a web archive-was added:
“To apply for federal and/or state aid, you need to complete just the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Federal aid includes Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Direct Loans, both subsidized and unsubsidized, Perkins loans, Nursing loans, and Work-Study. State aid varies by state. Once the FAFSA is completed, you may be selected by the Federal Processor for a process called verification, which means you will have to provide your actual tax data on the FAFSA through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.”
Below more information regarding the FAFSA, another paragraph that was not there previously had been added. It reads:
“Please note that by completing only the FAFSA, Boston College is not able to determine your eligibility for institutional need-based grants. In order to be considered for all institutional need-based aid as well as all federal and state aid, you must complete the FAFSA and the forms listed below, if applicable to your situation.”
The previous absence of these two paragraphs demonstrates the sort of failure that instigated Cummings’ letter. To be considered for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs, all of which fall under federal aid, students only need to submit the FAFSA, which can be done for free electronically. Universities are forbidden from requiring any documentation in addition to the FAFSA for prospective students to be evaluated for federal aid, according to The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which was passed in 2008 as an amendment to The Higher Education Act of 1965. The other forms listed on BC’s page for prospective students all apply strictly to other forms of aid, and some of them, including the College Board’s PROFILE form, require a fee.
Cummings was right to point out the failures of these institutions to explicitly differentiate the requirements for these forms. It is unfair for universities to mislead prospective students into believing that anything beyond the FAFSA is required for them to be considered for federal financial aid opportunities, regardless of whether that misdirection is a result of ignorance, poor wording, or blatant wrongdoing.
BC’s failure was not as drastic as that of some other institutions. American University, George Washington University, and Georgetown University all stated explicitly that prospective students had to fill out forms beyond the FAFSA to be considered for federal aid. That was not the case for BC-instead, the University previously did not include the necessary language to clarify which forms were required for federal aid and which forms were required for University aid.
The webpage for prospective students is not the only place from which information for aid applications can be obtained, but it is a popular one. Although it is possible that the financial aid office clarifies this distinction through conversations with prospective families and other avenues, a real risk was still created that students might not apply for federal aid at all because of confusion about the form requirements, particularly those students who are unsure about whether they would be eligible for aid. The University was right to fix this discrepancy as quickly as possible upon the release of Cummings’ letter, but it was a mistake that should not have been made in the first place.