A recent investigation into the admission practices of colleges has revealed that some schools deny admission and could even reduce financial aid to students based on one particular, non-financial, non-academic question that students submit to the federal government on their Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSAs).
The millions of students and parents who fill out the FAFSA each year are likely clueless about how colleges are using the data they provide the U.S. Department of Education. The FAFSA is used by nearly every American who needs help paying for college. It turns out students’ requests for help are now being systematically used against them by some colleges.
According to an Inside Higher Ed report, when would-be college students apply for financial aid using the FAFSA, they are asked to list the colleges they are thinking about attending. The online version of the form asks applicants to submit up to 10 college names. The U.S. Department of Education then shares all the information on the FAFSA with all of the colleges on the list, as well as state agencies involved in awarding student aid. The form notes that the information could be used by state agencies, but there is no mention that individual colleges will use the information in admissions or financial aid — and there is no indication that students could be punished by colleges for where they appear on the list.
But the list has turned out to be very valuable to college admissions offices and private enrollment management consultants: They have discovered that the order in which students list institutions corresponds to students’ preferred college. Now, some colleges use this “FAFSA position” when considering students’ applications for admission, which may affect decisions about admission or placement on the wait list, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
So the institution is disinclined to use up a precious admissions slot for a student who is unlikely to enroll.