Room for improvement

The federal government and university officials should collaborate to streamline the financial aid application process

Applying for financial aid can be grueling. The University requires students submit the FAFSA and an additional profile which must be filled out on SIS. It is not uncommon for a school to request two financial aid forms, but the practice raises questions of legality.

In February, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article about a letter sent to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland which lists 111 colleges that “appear to be establishing additional requirements for students to complete costly additional forms.”

Legally, a university cannot deny federal aid to a student who completes the FAFSA and meets the requirements for aid eligibility. This is the cause of Cummings’ concern, for all 111 colleges he lists in his letter either require a student complete an additional form, commonly the College Board’s CSS Profile, or direct students to complete two forms without saying which is primarily used to determine a student’s aid package. The University was not on Cummings’ list, probably because the University does not require the CSS Profile for returning students; instead, it requires a form that can be completed on SIS, which does not cost money to submit like the CSS Profile does.

University President Teresa Sullivan said returning University students applying for financial aid are asked to submit the SIS profile because of timing issues with FAFSA. The University must set a form submission deadline of March 1 to get aid packages out by April 1. The FAFSA form does not become available until January, giving students limited time to complete it. But students can work on filling out their SIS profiles as early as the fall, using the previous year’s financial income information. This helps expedite the process of assessing a student’s need and offering a financial aid package. Sullivan also said the SIS profile could, arguably, give students a better financial aid offer than FAFSA does, because the profile asks for more information.

“An early package makes so much difference,
especially to a student who comes from a family who’s
not very familiar with college” Sullivan said.
“The administration has encouraged us to go out and help people fill out FAFSA and we do that,
but the problem is there is a very narrow window.”

Students may find it easier to fill out their SIS profile early, but they also may find it easier to fill it out at the same time as the FAFSA so they can use many of the same numbers from their tax returns to answer questions on both of the forms. Because the due date for both forms is the same, it is questionable whether simply making the profile available earlier actually encourages students to submit their information earlier, alleviating the time crunch.

Sullivan has suggested, in order to give the University more time to get their awards out, high school juniors be given the option to complete the FAFSA. Filling out the form early would alleviate the time crunch involved with calculating and distributing student aid packages. It would also allow officials more time to assist students who are not very familiar with these kinds of forms.

“An early package makes so much difference, especially to a student who comes from a family who’s not very familiar with college” Sullivan said. “The administration has encouraged us to go out and help people fill out FAFSA and we do that, but the problem is there is a very narrow window.”

Sullivan admitted not all government officials have been receptive to the idea of allowing students to fill out the FAFSA form early, particularly because of concerns about fraud, but she believes this concern is easily addressed by doing random audits.

“The truth is for most families there is a great deal of stability between one year of income tax returns and the next year of income tax returns.” Sullivan said. “There may be a few people who win the lottery in between, but there aren’t very many.”

As to the matter that the SIS profile may give students a better deal by asking more specific questions, there is no reason the federal government cannot modify the FAFSA to reflect the profiles that many schools ask their students to submit. Having one more specific form which students can start working on early would increase the likelihood they would get an appropriate aid package, and increase the efficiency of the process.

Cummings was right to raise concern over institutions’ additional financial aid application requirements. But rather than indict them, we should take these universities’ requirements as a signal that the current federal law and the form it requires do not facilitate the most accurate assessment of need in the most efficient manner. Colleges and the federal government should work to change practices, and develop a uniform standard that works best for everyone.


Published March 27, 2014 in Opinion





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