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Student Financial Services’ new method of collecting noncustodial parent’s financial information draws ire from students

Student Financial Services director says new process is fairer, more verifiable

<p>The College Board introduced the new application during the 2017-2018 academic year, but SFS did not adopt the requirement until this academic year.&nbsp;</p>

The College Board introduced the new application during the 2017-2018 academic year, but SFS did not adopt the requirement until this academic year. 

Student Financial Services is now requiring noncustodial parents to submit a College Scholarship Service Profile for dependent students applying for financial aid. Custodial parents and their dependent students, regardless of the parents’ marital status, must also submit a general CSS Profile if applying for financial aid.

The College Board, which distributes the financial aid application, introduced the new application during the 2017-2018 academic year, but SFS did not adopt the requirement until this academic year. 

Previously, the CSS Profile only required the financial information — defined by the income and assets — of the custodial parent and the student in a divorced or separated pair. The noncustodial parent was asked to fill out an information form from SFS about the financial support they had provided to the student throughout childhood and planned to provide to the student for college. If the noncustodial parent was unavailable to complete the form, the student and their noncustodial parent were required to submit a blank copy of the form and a signed statement explaining the circumstances. 

Now, the noncustodial parent must provide their own financial information, including their income and assets, directly through the new CSS profile. The custodial parent and student must still provide their financial information through the CSS profile, and the SFS form is still required of the noncustodial parent.

Reasoning and rebuke

The change has drawn criticism from some students, who argue that requiring students to ensure their noncustodial parents provide their financial information puts a heavy burden on students to relive their past.

“I’ve heard specifically from a bunch of students that filling out this form has really put an undue mental burden on them,” said Ellie Brasacchio, a third-year College student, Student Council president-elect and co-director of the Alliance for the Low-Income and First Generation Narrative Conference. “It had to make them relive bad circumstances in their lives pertaining to their relations with their parents that if they didn’t have to fill out these extra forms and justify saying that they have a parent who’s noncustodial, they would not have to go through.”

Brasacchio said she has heard from students who said this new requirement has negatively affected their academic performance, led to depression and caused them to consider dropping out if aid is not awarded.

According to SFS Director Scott Miller, the change comes in light of a concern about the verifiability of the information students provide in the SFS forms.

“Based on the signed verification by the student, we expected this information to be accurate,” Miller said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “However, we saw cases where the information on the form did not match our review of actual payments for the student.”

Miller said the SFS office started noticing that payments were arriving that came from noncustodial parents who had reported that they were not contributing anything. Miller said these parents were trying to get more financial aid through doing so.

“We knew there was some inconsistencies, but we didn’t have a better method of collecting the information,” Miller said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “When the College Board developed this new application and a new process, we saw a tool that could then help us get better information, and we could have more accurate information.”

Now, Miller said, the CSS Profile allows SFS to collect information directly from the noncustodial parent and determine how much the noncustodial parent should contribute to their child’s education through data analysis. The process, he said, is fairer.

“Part of [SFS’s] responsibility ... is to be a good steward of the universities funds and make sure that the right people were getting the right aid,” Miller said.

But Joshua Farris, a fourth-year College student and co-director of the AL1GN Conference, said that SFS must figure out the root cause and pervasiveness of students saying their noncustodial parents are not providing aid and then their noncustodial parents sending checks in.

“The question is, where [is SFS] getting the data from?” Farris said. “Quantify it. If it is an issue, how many, out of all the applicants? How often? What do they do with those that are checks? What is the root cause that they’re trying to get at?”

Farris said a spurious factor could be at play for why the parents are sending in checks. He said given the intersection with low-income students and first-generation students, it could be that the parents do not understand how the financial aid process works, as they may not have gone through it themselves.

“With low-income students, the same students who intersect with first generation [students], their parents don’t have a four-year degree and don’t know a lot about the higher education process,” Farris said. “How are they knowing all these procedures? How are they knowing all the rules and guidelines? How are they knowing to navigate it enough?”

Exceptions to the rule

In fall 2018, the department emailed students currently receiving financial aid grants whose parents were divorced — several hundred in total — notifying them that the information collection method was changing. Those returning for the 2019-2020 academic year would have to ensure their noncustodial parents filled the profile out. Miller said that SFS offers fee waivers for the CSS Profile for students with need or high need, and that noncustodial parents were offered this same waiver. 

In certain cases, Miller said, SFS may waive the requirement that a noncustodial parent must fill out the CSS Profile.

“If they’re [in] situations where ... they don’t have any idea who [the noncustodial parent] is, or if there’s an adversarial relationship, there were cases of abuse or abandonment or this kind of thing, where it was problematic for a variety of reasons, we have a waiver form,” Miller said. 

Miller said that most waiver forms are granted and will not need to be re-filed each year.

“For 2019-2020, we’re having to evaluate everyone, because this is a new process, but … for most of the students where we’re granting waivers, we’re granting it for a multi-year, so they won’t have to go through this process again next year,” Miller said. “We’re just waiving the noncustodial going forward.”

But there are several reasons a waiver may be rejected. Miller mentioned that if a student has a relationship with their noncustodial parent, the parent’s unwillingness to pay is not grounds alone for a waiver to be approved.

“It goes back to our philosophy that we expect the parents of the individual children to contribute to their child’s educational costs,” Miller said. 

In some cases, a noncustodial parent simply refuses to fill out the application, which also does not count as a reason for a waiver to be approved.

“We do have some cases like that where they’re just unwilling to provide any information and we can’t award the aid — we have to have something to be able to evaluate,” Miller said. “Again, even in a case like that, if the parent fills out an application, all it does is allow us to be able to evaluate everything else, looking at shared income and assets.”

Brasacchio said that in the case the waiver is not approved, the appeals process can be traumatic for students who have difficult histories with their noncustodial parents.

“When the waiver is denied, you have to appeal it by basically telling your life story to SFS about how your parents got divorced or if your parents were ever married, or one parent left before your third birthday or something like that, struggles that your parent had to go through to be a single parent and why you should be able to have this waiver, to not have to give your noncustodial parent’s information,” Brasacchio said. “In that process of having to relive all those memories of a traumatic past between your parents and between the relationship between your parents and yourself, that’s where the trauma comes.”

One student — whose identity will remain anonymous in order to protect their privacy — said their noncustodial parent refused to complete the CSS Profile. Their waiver was denied. 

“[SFS is] saying, regardless of the relationship, ‘I have to get [the noncustodial parent’s] financial information,’” the student said. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this without a court order of some form … My financial well-being and admission to this institution are in the balance.”

SFS said they could not verify a particular student’s case.

Reflecting back and looking forward

The process of filling out the CSS Profile starts with the student, Miller said. If the student indicates their parents are divorced, the form will ask about which parent the student lives with and which parent is noncustodial. The student, upon providing the information, will receive a message from the CSS Profile requesting the name and email address of the parent.

The noncustodial parent will then get an email from the College Board inviting them to complete  the CSS Profile. After the parent provides their income and assets, SFS will upload the data into the financial management site Oracle PeopleSoft. SFS then will analyze the CSS data alongside data from the University Registrar and the Office of Admissions to calculate student aid eligibility and award aid.

“Prior to 2018-2019, PeopleSoft did not have the capability, without a school specific modification, to receive noncustodial financial aid application data from the CollegeBoard,” Miller said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Miller said that so far, the new process has been successful. The University joins the ranks of Washington & Lee University and the University of Richmond in collecting non-custodial parent information through the CSS Profile but is the first public university in Virginia to adopt the method.

Farris said he wishes SFS had engaged student input before passing the change.

“We’re so all about student self-governance here, but we don’t get to govern this,” Farris said. “This is a collaboration and we need to have more people sit down, between administrators and students. Because if you don’t have a seat at the dinner table, then you’re on the menu.”

Students applying for financial aid for the next academic year need to submit both the FAFSA and CSS Profile by March 1, which has already passed for students applying for financial aid for 2019-2020. The noncustodial parent’s CSS Profile must be submitted a reasonable amount of time after the student’s deadline.