Yale’s Financial Aid Office recently made changes to its website’s financial aid instructions after a congressman accused the University, along with 110 other higher education institutions, of misleading applicants.
In an open letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in February, Elijah Cummings — the ranking democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — said his office had discovered that Yale and other institutions were violating the Higher Education Act by mischaracterizing the requirements for applying for federal aid. According to Cummings, the 110 schools — which included every member of the Ivy League but Princeton — either explicitly required applicants to submit federal aid forms other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or failed to emphasize that students need to complete only the FAFSA forms to be eligible for federal student aid.
Two days after Cummings made his objection, Yale changed the wording on its financial aid website to clarify the requisites for applying for federal and institutional aid.
“Yale does not believe we were misleading anybody,” said Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi.
Still he added that because of the complexity of financial aid, he could understand why Cummings misinterpreted the financial aid language Yale had previously used on its financial aid website.
According to Storlazzi, the University first heard of these accusations from an article that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education shortly after Cummings’ letter was released. After several conversations with the University’s General Counsel, Undergraduate Admissions Office, the Office of Public Affairs and Communications, as well as the Office of Federal and State Relations, Storlazzi said the Financial Aid Office changed the language of the website “just to be even clearer.”
The Higher Education Act, which was amended by Congress in 1992, stipulates that institutions of higher education are mandated to use only the free FAFSA form to determine federal financial aid for prospective students.
But most selective universities do not use the FAFSA to determine the level of institutional aid each student warrants. Rather, Yale and most other selective colleges and universities in America use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, a form administered by the College Board. Unlike the free FAFSA forms, students must pay $25 to submit their first CSS form to a school and then $16 to each school thereafter.
“Because we were saying that students had to submit both applications in order to access the full range of financial aid available, Rep. Cummings thought that we were saying students had to pay the $25 fee for federal aid,” Storlazzi said.
Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors Network, a resource center that advises students on financial aid, said universities prefer using the CSS form because it is more detailed and gives a better sense of a student’s family’s wealth and income than the FAFSA forms do.
Storlazzi said the FAFSA and CSS forms also used different methodologies for calculating a family’s wealth and income. While FAFSA ignores the assets of families earning under $50,000, for example, Storlazzi said the CSS form still considers the assets of these families because there may be cases where the family’s assets are in the millions and the family is simply living off these assets. But he added that these cases are rare and most students’ calculated level of need would be similar using either the FAFSA or CSS forms.
Because of these differences, Storlazzi conceded that some prospective applicants to Yale who may only be interested in applying for federal aid and would not have needed to fill out the CSS form despite what the University’s website had advised prior to these recent changes.
Courtney Cochran, Elijah Cumming’s press secretary, said the congressman was pleased with the quick responses from Yale and its peer schools — including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania — in making their financial aid language clearer for prospective students.
“We will be monitoring the actions of all the institutions identified in [Congressman Cumming’s] letter,” Cochran said.
Storlazzi said this episode is a testament to the difficulties of conveying complex financial aid rules and information to families. He added that although he wants all the relevant information to be accessible to prospective students, he is wary of making the website cumbersome and unwieldy.
In the future, Storlazzi said the Financial Aid Office looks to partner with the Yale College Council in helping ensure that the office’s digital presence is both attractive and navigable for prospective students.
The percentage of Yale College students who receive some form of financial aid has risen from 42.4 percent in the 2007–’08 academic year to 52.2 percent in the 2013–’14 academic year.