Can the FAFSA hurt a student’s chances of admission or financial aid?

by Grace

The simple act of submitting a FAFSA could harm an applicant’s chances for admission or financial aid at some selective colleges.

Some colleges are denying admission and perhaps reducing financial aid to students based on a single, non-financial, non-academic question that students submit to the federal government on their applications for student aid.

Millions of high school students and their parents probably have no idea this happens after they fill out the ubiquitous Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The form, known as the FAFSA, is used by nearly every American who needs help paying for college.

Here’s how it works.  Some schools have found that “the order in which students list institutions corresponds to students’ preferred college”.

When would-be college students apply for financial aid using the FAFSA, they are asked to list the colleges they are thinking about attending. The online version of the form asks applicants to submit up to 10 college names. The U.S. Department of Education then shares all the information on the FAFSA with all of the colleges on the list, as well as state agencies involved in awarding student aid. The form notes that the information could be used by state agencies, but there is no mention that individual colleges will use the information in admissions or financial aid — and there is no indication that students could be punished by colleges for where they appear on the list.

But the list has turned out to be very valuable to college admissions offices and private enrollment management consultants: They have discovered that the order in which students list institutions corresponds to students’ preferred college.

Now, some colleges use this “FAFSA position” when considering students’ applications for admission, which may affect decisions about admission or placement on the wait list, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

If a student happens to place his favorite college toward the end of the list, he may be hurting his chances of admission.

So the institution is disinclined to use up a precious admissions slot for a student who is unlikely to enroll.

Does this really happen?

Explicit evidence was not provided in the Inside Higher Ed article on this, so I understand the skepticism expressed in the comments and elsewhere.  However, it’s understandable that schools would be reluctant to admit this practice.  Plus, I doubt the National Association for College Admission Counseling is creating this story out of thin air.  So I believe it happens at some selective schools, and as an applicant I would take this into account.

In case it’s true

One approach to avoid the risk of losing out on chances of admission or financial aid would be to submit the FAFSA one school at a time.  That way it removes all possibilities of  being dinged for the order of schools on the list.

It would be better if the government would just stop sharing the entire list with all the schools a student puts on the FAFSA.



6 Comments to “Can the FAFSA hurt a student’s chances of admission or financial aid?”

  1. The advice that I’ve been given regarding this possibility is to list schools in alphabetical order.


  2. Lynn O’Shaughnessy visited this issue on her blog:

    Near the end, she comments on the one school at a time approach.


  3. Thanks for that link, zzzzz! She suggests alphabetical order, which seems reasonable. But eslewhere I’ve read that it doesn’t make any difference. And then the listing one school at a time approach doesn’t work. I think I’d go with the alphabetical order method and not give it too much thought.


  4. If all schools are using the FAFSA order, then making the order correct is probably your best bet—you want to maximize the chance of getting into your first choice, even at the expense of lowering your chances at less important schools. If only some schools are using the FAFSA order, then you’d want to put those first and others afterwards—assuming you could know which schools were using FAFSA order.

    I don’t see any advantage to alphabetizing schools or scrambling the order—it may be that schools should not have access to the order, but if they do, it helps for the order to be correct.


  5. I’m guessing that the hope is by alphabetizing the order, you are making it clear to the schools that the order is not by preference.

    If this issue gets a lot of play, and a lot of people try to game the system, then order may become sufficiently less of a predictor that the schools will stop using it as such.


  6. If you are counting on someone who looks at the order noticing that it is alphabetizing, you are taking a bigger risk than you would be taking if they were in the right order—because having them in the right order possibly increases chances for the preferred schools at the expense of lowering it for less preferred ones. Alphabetizing at best equalizes chances, and more likely decreases chances at preferred schools in order to get an increase at less preferred ones.


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