Congressman alleges more than 100 universities are in violation of Higher Education Act

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In a letter released Monday, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, alleged that more than 100 universities and colleges, including UCSF, are requiring students seeking financial aid to submit fee-based forms — a breach of federal law.

Addressed to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the letter claims that 111 institutions may be in violation of the Higher Education Act, which requires students applying for federal financial aid to submit only the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Cummings called on Duncan to help ensure institutions “are not creating improper and unnecessary barriers to the federal assistance that is so critical.”

“I asked my staff to look into this issue because many college applicants and their families find it challenging to navigate the process of applying for financial aid,” Cummings said in a statement. “I want to be sure colleges and universities are providing clear and accurate information.”

But officials at UCSF and Stanford, two schools indicated in the letter, believe the committee staff that conducted the investigation could have been more thorough.

“Stanford is not in violation of the act and our inclusion on the list is an error,” said Lisa Lapin, associate vice president for university communications at Stanford in an email, adding that the list makes a presumption about how the school uses supplementary applications, such as the College Board’s CSS Profile. “We don’t use the CSS Profile for federal aid and never have.”

While institutions are permitted to use fee-based forms to determine eligibility for nonfederal aid, they may be in violation if they do not clearly delineate to students that they can opt out and still receive financial aid.

Although UCSF had differentiated between the federal funds that require only the FAFSA from those institutional funds that require an additional CSS Profile on the “How To Apply” page of its financial aid website, the letter cited a potentially misleading “Deadlines and Important Dates” page that called both forms “necessary application materials.”

Carrie Steere-Salazar, the director of student financial aid at UCSF, said the university was under the impression that students fully understood their options.

“In light of the letter and the fact that Congress didn’t understand it, we need to be more clear,” she said. “We have actually never had an issue come up with our students before about those options.”

Steere-Salazar said the website has since been updated for better clarity.

“Perhaps some of the pages on the websites that were being looked at, by whoever was doing the research, didn’t have all the information on it,” she said. “This gives us a great opportunity to make sure that everything is well-documented and covered.”

Secretary Duncan’s office confirmed it has received Cummings’ letter and will review it and respond accordingly.

Chase Schweitzer covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ChaseSchweitz.