The first letter in the FAFSA stands for free. The application for federal student aid must be free to ensure fair access to higher education financing for all students. But many elite colleges are supplementing the FAFSA with the complex and costly CSS PROFILEfinancial aid application from College Board. According to the results of an investigation by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 111 colleges and universities may be out of compliance with the Higher Education Act by making it seem like the CSS PROFILE is required in order to qualify for federal financial aid.

“Institutions appear to be establishing additional requirements for students to complete costly additional forms, including the fee-based PROFILE form developed by the College Board, to be considered for financial aid,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the committee’s ranking member on the committee, wrote in a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Congress banned this practice in 1992 because it creates undue hurdles for students seeking federal student aid.”

As I’ve written before, the simplification of the FAFSA coupled with the “high tuition, high aid” model has pushed many institutions to require the PROFILE. That’s because in this model, the listed sticker price of the institution is high, but the college publicizes significant financial aid packages to low- and moderate-income students. The PROFILE is used by these elite institutions, such as Harvard, to determine institutional aid eligibility, not federal eligibility. If an applicant fails to complete the PROFILE but completes the FAFSA, the student should still be eligible for federal financial aid like the Pell Grant and Direct Loans.

But, according to the investigation, many colleges are making it seem like the CSS PROFILE is required to obtain any form of financial aid. This is a huge problem because the PROFILE actively undoes what FAFSA simplification set out to do. It has almost 100 more questions than the FAFSA, and costs $25 to send to one college plus $16 for each subsequent submission. And although there are some fee waivers available to low-income students, the College Board is not transparent about who qualifies for them. As a result, students don’t know whether they will owe money until they get to the end of the long and arduous process of filling out the application.

This is why the results of the investigation are concerning. Making it seem like students must fill out a separate, expensive, and overly complex financial aid form in order to receive federal financial aid—let alone any aid—is shameful. What’s worse is that over 20 percent of the 111 colleges cited in the investigation have publicly committed to increasing college opportunity for low-income students at a recent White House summit. The PROFILE puts another barrier into place that can prevent these students from applying to a school or receiving the financial support they need to make an informed college decision.

The result of this investigation will probably lead to colleges being more transparent about the requirements for federal versus institutional aid. But that’s a semantics solution that doesn’t go far enough in preserving a simplified application pathway for low- and moderate-income students. Institutions need to resist the urge to make the financial aid process more complex for students. By using the CSS PROFILE, colleges may be able to find a few students who can pay more for their education than the FAFSA reveals. But overwhelmingly, it hurts more financially-needy prospective students than it helps.

[Cross-posted at Ed Sector]

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Rachel Fishman

Rachel Fishman is a policy analyst for the New America Foundation Education Policy Program.