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Report suggesting colleges discriminate based on FAFSA exaggerated, officials say

Despite a recent report that some college admissions departments may be denying students based on a portion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Boston University officials said the part of the FAFSA in question does not play a role in BU’s admission decisions.

While a Friday article in education-based news outlet Inside Higher Ed entitled “Using FAFSA Against Students” stated the portion of the financial aid form where students rank institutions by preference is sometimes used by institutions to determine an individuals’ admissions and financial aid status, officials said the article’s claims may be exaggerated.

“The headline was actually a little bit misleading,” said Augustana College Vice President of Admissions W. Kent Barnds, who was quoted in the article. “In the context that I use FAFSA position, it is for its predictive value, rather than an element to guide decision-making. That’s a really important distinction.”

BU spokesman Colin Riley said BU Admissions does not even have access to the ranking part of the FAFSA form.

In addition, BU Director of the Office of Financial Assistance Julie Wickstrom said the financial aid department does not take into account the part of the form in question.

“The college selections listed on the FAFSA do not play a role in financial aid decisions at Boston University,” Wickstrom said in an email.

While BU does not make use of the rankings section of the form, Barnds said admissions at Augustana takes into account the rankings section of the FAFSA to make an educated guess about which of the college’s admitted students will be most likely to enroll, not to make definitive decisions about financial aid awards or admittance.

“If a college was using FAFSA position for decision-making, there should be required transparency, or there should at least be transparency for a college to say that this [section of the FAFSA] could influence an admissions decision,” he said. “But I want to be absolutely clear, that’s not how we’re using FAFSA position. We’re using FAFSA position to predict or at least as another element that helps us to predict who’s going to enroll.”

Augustana admissions officers also use the ranking portion of the FAFSA to prioritize outreach strategies in order to reach students that are likely the most interested in enrolling, Barnds said.

“When we begin sending out our offers of financial assistance, what we describe as award letters, we do prioritize our time and attention according to FAFSA position, or we take it into consideration,” he said. “One of the first groups that we’re going to look at is those students who have us in position number one to make sure that we’re serving those students, and we don’t overlook those students which data would suggest are likely to be students who are most interested in attending Augustana.”

National Association for College Admission Counseling Director of Public Policy David Hawkins said he reached out to sources at several colleges and universities when contacted by Inside Higher Ed officials for the article.

“The admission officers that I talked to indicated that yes, they did have access to the students’ list of colleges from the FAFSA, and that they tended to use it more as a yield tool than as an admission decision tool,” he said.

Hawkins said that while none of the officials he contacted suggested they would deny a student based on the FAFSA form rankings, some institutions could be using the rankings to make decisions about waitlisting students.

“Theoretically, at least, an institution could look at a student’s level of interest, potentially as gauged or indicated by the FAFSA list, and make a determination about whether that student should go ahead and be straight up admitted or if they should go ahead and put them [the student] on a waitlist if they don’t stand a good chance of enrolling that student,” he said.

While the U.S. Department of Education should make it clearer that colleges may see the rankings part of the FAFSA, students should also be aware that information they disclose on financial aid forms may be taken into consideration during the admissions process.

“In this era of great uncertainty for colleges, they [colleges] are really trying very hard to figure out what students’ intentions are,” he said. “That’s really something important to note for any student going through the process.”

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