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By Elizabeth LaScala

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About this blog: I post articles to offer timely and substantive college admission guidance on important topics and issues. Originally from New York, I have a B.S. from Hunter College in NYC and advanced professional degrees from the University of...  (More)

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The Big Mistake Students Make When Filling Out The FAFSA

Uploaded: Jan 21, 2014
As the flurry starts to die down around applying to colleges, there is a new issue for students and their families to consider. Students may have to be just as thoughtful about filling out the FAFSA as they were about completing their college applications.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be prepared annually by current and prospective college students to determine their eligibility for financial aid. The application is the access point of consideration for many federal student-aid programs, over 600 state aid programs and most of the institutional (college) aid available to help students pay for their education.

The U.S. Department of Education begins accepting FAFSA applications on January 1 for the upcoming academic year. Students can send the FAFSA to up to ten schools at a time; when you complete it, you are asked to list the colleges you are applying to. The Education Department then shares the information on the FAFSA with all of the colleges on the list. What most students may not realize is that the order in which they list those schools could influence their admission chances or their aid award.

Some claim the order in which a student lists colleges directly corresponds to the student's college preferences. That may not be true of all students, but there is some data that supports this assertion. Anecdotally, when I review a student's college list, I see that many do prioritize it automatically. It's the nature of making lists and rankings…you tend to put your top choices at the top. It is even more likely for teens, who have just gone through one of the most stressful periods of their high school years. As they research and select colleges to apply to, complete applications and fill out many different forms, they seem to naturally prioritize their colleges. In fact, a number of colleges ask this same question on their own applications, and, although theories abound, no one really knows how they use this information.

If students do, in fact, list schools based on how they rank them, then the list could prove valuable to college administrators and enrollment managers who are concerned with yield and distribution of institutional awards. Many college advisors, financial aid counselors and professional organizations express concern about this observation. "The student has no idea that this information is being used in this context," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The federal government "...doesn't indicate it. And institutions certainly aren't telling students they are using it. …this is a concern from our [NACAC's standpoint." Hawkins thinks that mostly private colleges would be inclined to take the student's list into account, since they are trying to predict and improve their "yield" –that is, the percentage of applicants they offer admission who decide to enroll. Although Hawkins declined to name colleges that are doing this, he maintains that some do.

Many have concerns about the lack of awareness regarding this practice, rather than the fact that it happens. If you are not aware, you can't formulate a counter strategy. Others may experience dismay or even outrage at the realization that colleges act like businesses. They can and do use data to enhance their own bottom line. Just because they are in the business of education does not make their behavior less rationale, but it does sour those who are under the impression that institutions of higher learning prioritize the welfare of their students over their own financial health.

Aside from rejecting students who may put their institution lower on the list, some colleges may also offer smaller aid packages to students who list their institutions at the top—why provide an incentive to a student who is already likely to enroll? Many families tell me they are willing to 'do whatever it takes' to enable a child to attend their first choice school.

It is unclear exactly how big an issue this actually is. Colleges have many ways of assessing student interest, including whether they visit the campus, write early and often for information, attend regional events hosted by the school, register for an interview and so on. From my perspective this is just one of many factors a college may take into account when making an admission or financial aid decision, and certainly not as concrete as other factors in the admission process.

Nevertheless, some education professionals have started to express concern regarding the information that students may unwittingly disclose to colleges regarding their preferences. In response, the Education Department is looking into this matter to determine if some change is needed regarding the information they release to colleges. For now, some private college consultants (many of whom are just becoming aware of the issue themselves) are advising their clients who use the FAFSA to list colleges in alphabetical order to avoid having the list be used in decision-making. My own recommendation is when you fill out the FAFSA, list any in-state public institutions at the beginning of your list; then list the private schools right below them, in alpha order. This strategy demonstrates clearly to colleges that your list has been both categorized and alphabetized and helps avoid the use of these data for enrollment management purposes.

Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She helps students identify majors and programs of interest, develops best match college lists, offers personalized essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds to maximize scholarship opportunities and financial aid awards. For more information visit Elizabeth Call (925) 891-4491 or email her elizabeth@doingcollege.com


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Robin Bennett, a resident of another community,
on Feb 24, 2014 at 10:22 am

Thank you SO much for this information. This hidden requirement has made us crazy. The high school counselor didn\\\\\\\'t have a rationale reason for why this practice is done nor did FAFSA respond to our queries.

It\\\\\\\'s despicable that this is not clearly articulated to students, especially if the priority could potentially influence the award given.

Thank you again for describing this practice. Wow, if only FAFSA was as straight forward.

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