Quinnipiac and more than 100 colleges may have violated the Higher Education Act, according to a Feb. 3 letter from a Maryland congressman to the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
In a Democratic Committee investigation led by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the committee found 111 colleges’ websites make it seem like students are required to fill out forms other than the FAFSA to apply for federal aid, according to the letter.
Students must fill out the CSS Profile to get aid from Quinnipiac, not the federal government, according to Dominic Yoia, associate vice president and university director of financial aid.
“Not a single one of [the colleges in Cummings’ letter] said you had to fill out a profile form to get federal aid,” Yoia said. “But he was inferring that by not specifying that, you were in violation of some regulation, which is just untrue.”
The financial aid office clarified the university’s website as soon as it found out about the investigation.
“We went through our website with a fine-toothed comb,” Yoia said. “Nobody’s trying to mislead anybody, and while we might not agree with the allegations made in Congressman Cummings’ letter, like I said, every one of us wanted to remove anything that would possibly present any question.”
The Higher Education Act states the FAFSA is the only form colleges can use to determine federal aid, according to the letter. This statute is based on the idea that students should not have to pay a fee to apply for federal financial aid.
The FAFSA is free, while the CSS Profile comes with a fee, but requiring students to complete the CSS Profile for institutional aid is legal.
“Although they may make clear in other materials that the [CSS] Profile form is not required to determine eligibility for federal financial aid,” Cummings said in the letter. “The materials identified during this investigation may be the only information potential applicants see before deciding whether to apply.”
In his letter, Cummings linked to a screenshot of the financial aid section on Quinnipiac’s website where he said the university was unclear about what students need to do to apply for financial aid.
“All new students and returning students who entered the university as a freshman or transfer student after July 2011 are also required to complete a CSS Profile Form electronically,” the Quinnipiac website said under a section titled “How to Apply.”
Yoia said he thought the Quinnipiac website made it “crystal clear” that the FAFSA form is required for federal aid and the CSS Profile form is required for institutional aid.
“I think [Cummings] selectively went through websites looking for anything that wasn’t consistent,” he said. “I’ve never had a family call that was confused about filling out [the CSS Profile] form for federal aid.”
Most of the other colleges on Cummings’ list also updated their websites, according to Yoia.
“To be considered for institutional grant aid, all new students (includes accelerated nursing and transfer students) and students who entered the university as a freshmen or transfer student after July 1, 2011 must file the CSS Profile Form annually,” Quinnipiac’s updated website says.
In a separate paragraph, the website says students who want federal aid must complete the FAFSA form.
Sophomore Annie Dwyer said Quinnipiac’s updated website is not concise.
“[The website] does tell you what the CSS profile is and tells you what the FAFSA is,” she said. “But with all the information, quite honestly, I got lost on it. I’m just going to be like, ‘Mom, help me out.’”
Dwyer finds the original information on the website easier to understand.
“I feel like if I really didn’t know what a FAFSA was or know what a CSS profile was I would go somewhere else and look at it,” she said. “But when it’s all in one section, that’s where I get lost.”
After reading the information on the updated website, sophomore Rebecca Stavis-Weyser did not understand the difference between the CSS Profile and FAFSA forms.
“They did not make that clear,” she said. “I still don’t really know which each one of these are [required for institutional or federal aid].”
For the past five years, the university has required students to complete the CSS Profile for institutional aid, according to Yoia. Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile considers factors, such as the noncustodial parent and family-owned businesses, which the university feels are important in determining if a student should receive money from Quinnipiac.
“What all college financial aid offices strive to do is to present students with every single financial aid opportunity that there is,” Yoia said. “To not suggest that a student apply for institutional aid would, I think, be very misleading because the bulk of our students receiving need-based grant aid receive that from institutional resources.”
Last year, students received about $4.4 million in federal grants, but $81 million in grants and scholarships from the university, Yoia said.
Yoia said he hopes a single form can be created that students can fill out for both federal and institutional aid.
“Where I probably don’t disagree with the congressman is that it is a confusing process and it is confusing because students have to fill out, at schools like Quinnipiac, two forms,” Yoia said. “Maybe now this will bring some attention to the fact that yes, it is cumbersome for both students and financial aid offices, and hopefully something will get done.”
Quinnipiac is working with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, which will draft a letter to the Secretary of Education explaining the position of the colleges mentioned in Cummings’ letter.