February 9, 2014

University Targeted by Congressman for Federal Financial Aid Violations

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Cornell may be violating a federal law regarding financial aid qualification by requiring students to submit financial aid forms other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to a letter written by Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) released on Feb. 3.

In his letter addressed to the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Cummings listed 111 universities that seemed to be in violation of an amendment to the Higher Education Act. The act states that universities should only use the FAFSA when determining student eligibility for financial aid.

The Democratic staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform discovered during an investigation that many universities ask, or require students, to submit the College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid Profile forms, which charges students fees, in addition to the FAFSA.

Cummings identified Cornell, as well as Ithaca College and seven of the eight Ivy League schools except Princeton, on the list of 111 potential violators of this law.

Fifty-eight out of the 111 colleges explicitly state on their websites that students must fill out the CSS profile to qualify for any financial aid, including federal student aid.

Another 53 universities directed students to submit both FAFSA and the CSS Profile to obtain federal aid, but did not clarify which of the two forms would be used to assess federal aid eligibility.

According to a National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators press release, NASFAA President Justin Draeger said he “doubted the colleges were withholding federal aid from students who had failed to complete the [CSS Profile], but … acknowledged that some of their websites could be clearer.”

On its website, Cornell’s Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment listed both the CSS Profile and FAFSA as “financial aid application requirements” for current undergraduate students interested in applying or renewing their Cornell financial aid.

University Spokesperson John Carberry said that while students are not required to use the CSS Profile when applying for [general] federal financial aid, the form serves as a helpful tool.

“While the [CSS Profile] is not required to secure [non-federal] aid, it’s especially useful in helping our Financial Aid office build packages that meet the full financial needs of our families, especially lower income families,” Carberry said in an email. “The [profile] allows Cornell to equitably provide considerable institutional grant aid well above the Pell Grants that students apply for using the FAFSA.”

The CSS Profile charges a nine dollar application fee and a 16 dollar reporting fee for each college or scholarship program, which students submit to, according to the College Board’s website.

While the CSS Profile’s fee can be waived, Cummings said the “the waiver process is not transparent or clear.”

According to students who have applied for financial aid using both the profile and FAFSA, the CSS Profile is more difficult to fill out because it asks for more detailed information.

“Filling out [the] CSS Profile was a very long application process. It was a lot of documentation,” Haritha Aribindi ’17 said. “The only reason why I got through all of it was because my older sister went through it before and knew what to do.”

Though students may find the financial aid application process to be difficult, Carberry said Cornell is dedicated to making the university affordable for admitted students.

Given that so many universities including Cornell use non-FAFSA forms, Cummings hopes to work with Secretary Duncan to ensure that schools “are not creating improper and unnecessary barriers to the federal assistance that is so critical to enabling students to pursue their academic and professional dreams.”