University News

U. clarifies financial aid policies to reflect federal guidelines

In wake of criticism, U. updates site to say only FAFSA required for federal aid applications

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The University amended its financial aid website following public allegations of misinformation at 111 higher education institutions.

The University has revised its financial aid website in response to a letter released Feb. 3 by the Democratic members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that identified Brown as one of 111 higher education institutions violating the Higher Education Act.

The complaints in the letter, which was addressed to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., revolve around the use of forms other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to determine applicants’ eligibility for federal assistance.

The 1992 version of the Higher Education Act made completing the FAFSA the sole requirement for students seeking federal financial aid in order to simplify the process and reduce costs for applicants, Cummings wrote in his publicly released letter. The use of additional forms remains compliant with federal law as long as institutions state explicitly that only completing the FAFSA is necessary to receive federal financial aid.

The allegations against Brown surround use of the CSS PROFILE, a more in-depth financial aid application run by the College Board, which enables students to apply for aid directly from their institution or other sources outside the federal government. The application is fee-based, and applicants must pay $25 to send the profile to one institution and $16 to send it to each additional recipient. These fees are automatically waived if a student demonstrates significant financial need, according to the College Board website.

Many institutions, including the University, use the CSS PROFILE in granting non-federal aid, but the application is not necessary to access federal funds — a fact that was not openly stated on the Office of Financial Aid’s website.

The Financial Aid Office is “revising the language on our website to ensure that all applicants are aware” that the FAFSA is the only requirement to seek federal aid, wrote Jim Tilton, director of financial aid, in an email to The Herald.

On Tuesday, the instructions on the Financial Aid Office’s website were updated to inform applicants that they must submit a FAFSA to be eligible for federal financial aid. The Financial Aid Office also added language to its website Tuesday afternoon clarifying that the financial aid application process involves the FAFSA to qualify for federal aid and the CSS PROFILE for University-provided assistance.

But students who wish to be eligible for the “nearly $100 million in Brown scholarship aid and certain other scholarships” must still complete both the CSS PROFILE and the FAFSA, wrote Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, in an email to The Herald.

“We are pleased that a number of institutions have changed the language on their websites, and we hope that other schools will follow suit,” Cummings wrote in a statement released to The Herald by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Democratic press secretary. “We are interested in learning what actions the Department of Education can take, but we would prefer these schools take action on their own.”

Sam Reinert ’17, who applied for financial aid last year, said he was unaware that the CSS PROFILE was not necessary for federal financial aid.

“We didn’t really think anything of it, we just did it because we thought it was part of the (aid application) process and that they needed more information,” said Eddie Mansius ’17.

The University and many other private institutions use forms like the CSS PROFILE in order to provide aid to students from families with higher income levels that make them ineligible for federal Pell Grants, said Lucie Lapovsky, principal for Lapovsky Consulting and an expert in higher education finance and governance. In doing so, elite institutions can attract students from low-income backgrounds who might otherwise be dissuaded from attending expensive private schools.

The committee examined the aid application processes of over 200 institutions before releasing its findings, according to Cummings’ letter. Princeton was the only Ivy League university not found in possible violation of the Higher Education Act.

In his publicly released letter, Cummings called for a meeting with Duncan to address the named institutions’ alleged violations of the Higher Education Act.

College accessibility and affordability have been popular issues among prominent Democrats over the past several years, Lapovsky said. “They’re trying to make sure there are as few barriers as possible,” she said.

Several students said while they were unaware how the CSS PROFILE and FAFSA made them eligible for different types of aid, they had no problem filing both applications.

“I don’t like the College Board in general, … (but) for the sake of financial aid, whatever they need to get you financial aid is probably necessary,” said Daniel Rabine ’17.

“If the University requires it, I assume they have a solid reason,” said Josh Kurtz ’17.

But President of Brown for Financial Aid Alex Mechanick ’15 called the CSS PROFILE’s complexity and financial burden “appalling.” The system is neither transparent nor designed with students in mind, he said, adding that the fees and lack of parental involvement can be prohibitive for many aid applicants.


-With additional reporting by Caroline Kelly