Colleges clarify aid application wording

Lawmakers say some students are paying extra fees

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Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and Sacred Heart University are among colleges clarifying the application process for federal financial aid after a congressman said some students are being misled into paying unnecessary fees.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., asked the Education Department to examine more than 100 colleges — including most of the Ivy League — for possible violations of U.S. law. He said some schools fail to inform students applying for federal grants and loans that they need only to use a free form known as Fafsa.

More students are seeking financial aid as the cost of higher education continues to rise faster than the rate of inflation. Outstanding student-loan debt has climbed to $1.2 trillion. Besides federal aid, many colleges offer their own grants, and hundreds of them require applicants to submit a fee-based form — the CSS Profile — to determine eligibility. That’s where the confusion lies.

“We’ve always been an advocate for students, never wanting them to pay for anything that is unnecessary,” said Julie Savino, executive director for financial aid at Sacred Heart, one of at least four colleges that made clarifications on its website last week. “All of us want to provide the best information we can, and we found places where we can update this and we did it to make it clearer.”

Savino said that reference appeared on the school’s “net price calculator” page, which lets families input financial data to see what kind of scholarships a student might receive. The reference was meant to remind students that if they want to apply for a school award, they must submit the Fafsa and the CSS Profile, she said. The Web page now says that the free form is needed to determine federal and state aid, while the CSS Profile is for eligibility for institutional grants and scholarships.

The CSS Profile is a product of the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit that also owns and administers the SAT test. It costs $25 to send the form to one school or scholarship program and additional reports are $16, according to the College Board, whose members include universities.

“The intent of the Higher Education Act is to make it easier for students to apply for financial aid,” Cummings said in a statement. “But we have found that many colleges and universities are making this process more complicated and costly, and may be potentially violating the law.”

Colleges use the profile, which asks more detailed questions than the federal form, to get a fuller picture of a family’s financial situation.