02/05/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Elite Universities Accused Of Creating Illegal Hurdles For Students Seeking Financial Aid


Dozens of elite and Ivy League higher education institutions may be violating the law by telling potential applicants they have to spend money filling out an unnecessary form, according to a letter sent to Education Secretary Arne Duncan from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Cummings, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, informed Duncan Monday of the findings of a review of more than 200 colleges and universities. That investigation resulted in 111 schools identified as apparently violating the Higher Education Act by telling potential applicants they must pay to fill out the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE developed by the College Board.

The PROFILE form is used by many institutions to calculate financial aid awarded by the college or state governments, and costs a minimum of $25, but only the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is required to determine federal financial aid packages.

Included among the 111 are elite schools like Yale, Brown, Duke, George Washington, Georgetown, Northwestern, Northeastern, Cornell, Cal Tech, New York University, and the universities of Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, Pennsylvania and Chicago. The only Ivy League school not included on the list is Princeton University.

Fifty-eight of the schools told applicants that they had to submit the fee-based PROFILE form "in order to secure any type of financial aid, including federal student aid," Cummings wrote, meaning that these schools appear to be in violation of the Higher Education Act. The other 53 directed applicants to "submit both the FAFSA and the PROFILE to obtain federal financial aid, although they do not clarify what each form is used to assess."

The Oversight Committee prefers schools to explain that the PROFILE is used to calculate financial aid from the university, and that applicants need only fill out the FAFSA for federal assistance. This is the approach used by Bard College and the University of Southern California, both of which Cummings singled out in his letter to Duncan as "schools that provide clear and correct guidance to financial aid applicants."

In the letter, Cummings wrote:

As a result of this review, it appears that 111 schools may be contravening the requirements of the Higher Education Act by explicitly requiring applicants to submit forms other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or by failing to make clear that only the FAFSA is required to be considered for federal student aid.

Instead, these 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 any financial aid. Congress banned this practice in 1992 because it creates undue hurdles for students seeking federal student aid.

Cummings requested a meeting with Duncan to find out how to ensure that colleges "are not creating improper and unnecessary barriers to the federal assistance that is so critical to enabling students to pursue their academic and professional dreams."