February 12, 2014

EDITORIAL: Clarifying Financial Aid Application Requirements

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Recently, a Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigation included Cornell on a list of more than 100 universities that may be circumventing the Higher Education Act. Under the act, a university cannot require — or appear to require — students to submit fee-based forms for federal financial aid. While institutions can require additional forms for their own aid, many schools imply that these fee-based forms are also necessary to obtain federal aid. We call on Cornell to comply with national standards and explicitly state its requirements for students to receive different kinds of aid.

University Spokesperson John Carberry said that Cornell students do not need the CSS Profile to receive federal aid. However, Cornell’s own financial aid application checklist includes the CSS Profile without saying what kind of aid is necessary or clarifying that the form is not mandatory for federal aid. We understand that the profile is “especially useful” for the University and that Cornell can use the form to determine how much aid to award a student. At the same time, clarifying financial aid requirements would prevent students who do not want to fill out the CSS Profile from having to fill out forms they do not need. If Cornell made its requirements for financial aid more clear, it would not only make it easier for students to receive adequate aid, but would also help the University comply with federal law.

By requiring fee-based forms like the CSS Profile, universities can make “undue hurdles for students seeking federal student aid,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. College Board does charge students for the CSS profile: a $9 application fee and $16 for each report. While the fees may not seem prohibitive — and they could potentially lead to thousands of dollars in aid — universities should not put students in a situation where they have to spend money when it is not necessary.

Higher education policy around the county should focus on providing as much financial aid as possible to students who need it, regardless of the forms students need to submit. While there are potential benefits to filling out forms like the CSS Profile, we think universities should be explicitly clear in what is and is not required of students applying for financial aid.

Update: Cornell’s financial aid application instructions have been updated online to include more explicit descriptions of individual aid forms.