On Feb. 3, U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) issued a public letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claiming that 111 of 200 colleges and universities were using misleading information about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in a report conducted by the House Committee for Oversight and Government Reform.
The schools drawn into question by the Committee were accused of misleading prospective students to believe they had to submit fee-based financial aid applications in addition to the FAFSA to qualify for any aid at all. Boston College was one of the 111 schools Cummings cited as only vaguely explaining that students only had to fill out the FAFSA to apply for federal aid.
Although the letter claimed that universities may be setting financial hurdles as a means to discourage low-income students from applying, and thus allowing colleges and universities to not have to dole out as much institutional aid, the University holds otherwise.
“It’s actually the opposite,” said Bob Lay, Dean of Enrollment Management (DEMO). “Rather than presenting obstacles to students, our goal is to offer students opportunities that will make attendance and success at Boston College possible.”
Lay, who has overseen BC’s Enrollment Management team since 1988, said that creating barriers to admittance has never been the University’s objective, and, contrary to Cummings’ letter, BC actually creates ways to enhance financial opportunities for prospective students.
“The most important point is that we want to encourage students to look at all of their financial aid options so that they can go to these schools,” Lay said. “We’re not discouraging anybody, but we don’t want to trick people by saying ‘Just fill out the FAFSA and you will get all the aid you’ll need.’ That’s just not going to happen.”
Chief Financial Strategist Bernie Pekala also noted that it would be more misleading for universities, particularly private institutions, to hinder the process of completing fee-based forms like the CSS/PROFILE since those forms allot far more aid than the federal level.
“The difficult situation, the conundrum we’re in, is that if we just get a FAFSA in and we provide them federal aid, that’s all [students] will think they’re eligible for,” Pekala said. “So these schools are trying to encourage them to complete their application because that will then qualify them for institutional aid.”
Although it is within students’ rights to fill out just the FAFSA when applying for financial aid, it is to their advantage, Lay said, to apply for institutional aid via the CSS/PROFILE-the application that allows schools to distribute private, institutional aid.
“It would be a mistake for a student to think ‘All I should do is fill out the FAFSA form,’ because at most they might get $6,000 and a Pell Grant … but $6,000 is not even one-tenth of the price of BC,” Lay said. “The same is true for the other schools [listed in Cummings’ letter].”
Although the CSS/PROFILE includes a $25 fee plus $16 for each additional institution, it accounts for a greater background of information on students’ family income circumstances, ensuring that the optimal amount of aid is distributed to the proper students. The fees associated with the CSS/PROFILE can also be waived by the University for students who fall within a certain income bracket.
“The frustration is, the College Board has schools, has members, and has a group of advisors to talk about need analysis. The federal government-the Department of Education-does not,” Pekala said of the lack of oversight that may go into federal financial aid consideration.
Pekala said that BC’s tax code can cause issues for financial aid selection as well, noting that the FAFSA can be manipulated to report a deceptively low level of family income-a falsification that the CSS/PROFILE prevents.
Given that the FAFSA only takes into consideration tax returns and assets, it is not uncommon for wealthy families with financially savvy tax accountants to manipulate the application, and thus qualify for the full level of federal aid by reporting negative adjusted gross income (AGI) or zero income.
“They look at your tax return and they look at your assets, but if you have most of your assets in your home, they don’t look at that,” Pekala said.
“The schools that are spending their own funds are making sure that they give it to the students that truly demonstrate the highest levels of financial need,” Lay said. “We want to be responsible in how we give out financial aid, and that’s the reason we require the PROFILE.”
While the Enrollment Management team-which is comprised of financial, retention, and undergraduate recruitment strategists-did update its financial aid information webpage to include more descriptive language on FAFSA policies on Feb. 6 as a result of Cummings’ letter, there was never an intentional effort on the University’s behalf to mislead students, Lay and Pekala said.
“Once the Chronicle of Higher Education article hit our desktops, several of us reviewed the website and we determined that the financial aid information on the admission website was vague and instructions needed to be clearer,” Lay said in an email. “Our Director of Student Financial Strategies, Bernie Pekala, worked with the Director of Student Financial Aid, Mary McGranahan, in Student Services to initiate a review all of the financial aid information posted for prospective students and to provide clarifications ASAP.”