COLUMN-Colleges may penalize you for ranking financial aid applications

Reuters

By Liz Weston

LOS ANGELES, Nov 11 (Reuters) - College applications aren'tfraught enough, so here's something else to worry you. The orderin which you list your preferred colleges on federal financialaid applications could be used against you.

Colleges are keenly interested in what's known as "FAFSAposition" - the order in which high school students list theirprospective institutions on the Free Application for FederalStudent Aid (FAFSA). Students can list up to 10 schools toreceive their financial aid information, and the ones they listfirst strongly predict which enrollment offers they're likely toaccept, college consultants say.

The Department of Education releases each student's line-upto all of his or her prospective colleges. That allows theinstitutions to see how they rank with students and exactlywhich schools they are competing against.

Most applicants don't realize this information is shared,and they have no idea their lists could be used to affect theiradmissions offers or their financial aid packages, said DavidHawkins, director of public policy and research for the NationalAssociation for College Admission Counseling in Arlington,Virginia.

"The idea that what students may be offered could besignificantly altered by the use of the FAFSA position is highlyproblematic," Hawkins said.

A recent Inside Higher Ed article detailed some of the waysthat information can be used against students. A universityconcerned about its "yield" - a closely-watched measure thattracks how many accepted students actually enroll - may notextend an admission offer if the university is near the bottomof an otherwise qualified student's list, for fear the offerwill be rejected.

A college at the top of a student's list, on the other hand,may not feel compelled to offer generous financial aid, sincethe student is seen as likely to accept without it.

Colleges don't admit to these tactics publicly, butconsultants who advise families on college selection say it's anopen secret that they occur.

"All colleges have the goal of admitting the best studentsthey possibly can at the best price they possibly can," saidDeborah Fox of Fox College Funding in San Diego, which advisesaffluent families on ways to reduce their college bills. "Istrongly believe that FAFSA position ... is just one of thetools they use."

College officials and consultants who advise them insistthat such practices aren't widespread. Schools are far morelikely to use FAFSA position to size up their competition and topredict enrollment, they say. But even the defendersacknowledged other ways in which FAFSA position could negativelyaffect prospective students.

WITHHOLDING OFFERS

Several of those I interviewed were skeptical that collegeswould routinely use FAFSA position to withhold an admissionsoffer, since FAFSA data is generally transmitted to schools inFebruary and March - late in the admissions process.

"The information is not available at the time it would beparticularly useful," said W. Ken Barnds, vice president ofenrollment at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, whowrote FAFSA position as part of a recent Huffington Post articleabout "big data" and college admissions. "And it would becompletely inappropriate to use this information in theadmissions decision-making process."

Hawkins, who agreed an outright denial was unlikely, saidhis college admissions sources have told him that FAFSA positioncan be used along with other indications of student interest-such as a campus visit or a consultation with a schoolrepresentative at a college fair - to put students on a waitlistrather offering admission "to see if they're still interested."

Colleges with limited resources for recruiting students maynot try as hard to persuade students to enroll who don't rankthem highly, said Galen Graber, an associate vice president forfinancial aid services at enrollment management consultantNoel-Levitz of Coralville, Iowa.

"If I'm 10th on someone's list, should I call that personand try to persuade them to move us nine positions ahead," Galenasked, "or should I call that person that has us in the secondposition instead?"

Noel-Levitz is among the consultants who have convincedcolleges to pay attention to FAFSA position. A college listedfirst by a student will have its offer of admission accepted 64percent of the time, according to the consultant's study of 153private and public colleges. The acceptance rate drops to 22percent for colleges listed second and 16 percent for thoselisted third, Graber said.

Augustana College, a Noel-Levitz client, uses FAFSA positionto help prioritize its offers of financial aid, Barnds said.

"I want to get [highly interested students] a financial aidoffer as quickly as possible," Barnds said, "so we don't leave astudent who's listed us as No. 1 waiting forever."

Expressions of student interest also are used by somecolleges to craft financial aid packages, especially thoseinvolving "merit aid" that doesn't require demonstrated need,Hawkins said. Eager-to-attend students may not receive the samegenerosity as those on the fence.

"The fact that colleges are differentiating between studentson anything other than income very much implies ... thesepackages are based on student interest, among other things,"Hawkins said.

Fox, who advises families on the often-complex strategies of"strategically" listing colleges on the FAFSA, is among thosewho wish the Department of Education would simply stop sharingFAFSA positions with schools.

"I think this is private information," Fox said. "It shouldbe kept private."

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