What’s on Your FAFSA May Hurt You

Using the FAFSA Against StudentsApparently, completing the FAFSA can be detrimental to your college application and chances for financial aid. According to Inside Higher Ed, some unnamed colleges are using the order students enter schools to receive the FAFSA reports as a way of predicting interest in the school. Essentially, this means that some schools are using the FAFSA against students.

How? Institutions may be use this information to reject students who “ranked” their school too low. The thinking is that these students are less likely to accept if admitted and would lower their yield rates.

Some colleges may be using it to reduce the amount of financial aid for students who “rank” the school first–after all, they really want to come to the school so they’ll be willing to pay. And once again, wealthy students who don’t need to submit the FAFSA win.

And apparently it’s not just the FAFSA. The ACT also provides information on the order students list schools on their information forms. Of course, unlike the FAFSA, students have to explicitly give the ACT permission to release their data to colleges.

The problem is that while colleges can dice and slice student data pick out the perfect candidate out of millions, the same isn’t true of data about colleges. Only a few websites will let you even search on college graduation rates or percentage of financial need met. Looking for employment after graduation? Forget it. Not an option.

Yet this data is available. Thanks to the success of college guides such as US New College Rankings or Peterson’s, colleges submit this information as part of the Common Data Set (CDS). As the data publishers gain leveraged with public demand for rankings, they have actually started asking some meaningful questions about graduation rates and financial aid.

However, the CDS is a private initiative and doesn’t make its data publicly available except through various college search websites. It’s as if the colleges agreed to provide CDS with the data as long as it couldn’t be easily accessed and evaluated. Just try to find a way to list all colleges in a state by percentage of financial need met.

While students and parents are copying average merit awards into their spreadsheets one school at a time, colleges are categorizing millions of students by zip codes, test scores, and placement of schools that will receive the information. Maybe they should take some of that effort and apply it to tracking the employment status of their own graduates.

So what should students do?

Opt Out. If given the option, don’t release your personal information. Of course, letting the College Board or ACT send your information to colleges is one way to find out about different schools but it’s not the only way.

The fact of the matter is that if you’re “college data aware” enough to know that some colleges keep track of information request as part of demonstrated interest, you probably won’t receive any benefit from providing your information. Better yet, you’ll be initiating the contact with the school to request information and will be considered a more promising applicant.

Alphabetize. Whenever you have to list the colleges to receive information such as the FAFSA, alphabetize. I don’t know how many schools you need in your list for this to work. The algorithm would have to have a minimum number of schools to be able to decide the order isn’t random but alphabetical. I would imagine the kind of schools would affect the number needed as well. Not necessarily the ideal solution, but the only one available as long as the FAFSA releases the information to all schools.

Use Placement for Ranking. Yes, this would seem to directly contradict the previous suggestion. However, if a school does take placement ranking into consideration, then I could see where in certain situations it might be useful. Specifically, if you have a first choice school.

I seriously doubt this will improve your chances at the nation’s most competitive schools. However, if you are looking further down the rankings, this could be a reasonable strategy. Of course, by making it obvious that it’s your first choice school, it may work against you if the school thinks it doesn’t need to provide as much financial incentive. Yeah, I know, clear as mud. It’s a consideration.

Apply early. This has always been just common sense. The sooner you apply, the sooner you can enter the financial aid pool. However, with the ease of applying to multiple schools online, many students wait until the last-minute. Waiting until the last-minute means missing opportunities for special campus visit or scholarship events that occur in January or earlier.

Target Schools. Ideally, attending a specific school should be a win-win situation. The student is getting the right environment to succeed academically and the school is getting a student that will contribute to the overall success of the student body.

Ranking conscious schools may be suspicious of students that appear to be using them as backups. And often students who would feel like they’ve won the lottery if they got into a specific schools better hope they’ve actually won one to pay for the tuition.

Keep Your Options Open. Make sure your college list is dominated by schools that you would genuinely be happy to attend and will likely be able to afford them. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re waiting for the college to pick you. You should be the one picking the college.
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