FAFSA in Controversy

FAFSA, FAFSA and Colleges, FAFSA and Admissions

List colleges you intend to apply to in alphabetical order on your FAFSA. Or risk consequences.

We recently came across one of the most interesting articles we’ve read in some time on highly selective college admissions on “Inside Higher Ed.” In an article entitled “Using FAFSA Against Students,” Ry Rivard details how what you type in on your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms can mean the difference between an acceptance and a denial. If you’re a regular reader of our college admissions blog, while we don’t write much about financial aid, it should come as no surprise to you that details matter in college admissions. If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you also know that psychology matters. We write quite a bit on the psychology of college admissions.

Well, did you know that the order in which you list schools that you’re intending to apply to on your FAFSA form matters? It sure does. Because a college admissions officer at Duke can see that you’re also interested in Northwestern, Williams, Dartmouth, and Stanford. And order matters because college admissions offices have noticed over the years that the school which they list first is the school the student most wants to attend. Why admit a student who doesn’t show demonstrated interest, who lists your school seventh on the list? Demonstrated interest matters because a college wants to have a high yield. They want to admit students who have intention of actually matriculating.

Doesn’t this strike you as a little bit dirty? But, hey, the highly selective college admissions process is a bit dirty. This is but a small part of it. You shouldn’t be surprised. If you’re filling out a FAFSA form, list colleges in alphabetical order. How easy would it be for FAFSA to mandate that you list the schools in alphabetical order? Now that would end this whole discussion.


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  • lika says:

    It’s the same reason why I tell my students to never tell in an interview or list on an application any other colleges to which they’re applying.

  • Jeffrey M. Vogelgesang says:

    Two comments: (1) Does this imply that applicants concerned about this issue should apply to FEWER colleges rather than more? (Or that an obvious “safety” is a bad idea, because the school will make inferences and resent what they assume about the student?) After all, if a college interested in “yield” accepts all students who applied to 4 or fewer colleges and rejected all who applied to 10 or more, statistically, the odds would favor them having a higher yield. (2) I hope you lobby FAFSA to correct this problem before next year, when a junior high school that I care about will be applying to competitive schools. Better yet, FAFSA should block out this information completely when submitting copies to the schools. It is irrelevant to the student’s application. Then they get NO information whatsoever, including how many other schools and which schools or how the school compares in competitiveness to the others the students apply to. It should be easy for them to cover the information prior to making copies for the colleges.

    • Bev Taylor says:

      1.) No, this should not impact the number of schools an applicant intends to apply to. Simply list the schools in alphabetical order for now.

      2.) We promise you that we will begin to Lobby FAFSA to either remove this question entirely or change it so that the schools are listed alphabetically automatically. There really is no reason college admissions officers should be privy to this information. Alumni interviewers sometimes ask the question and they include the response in their reports. It’s a question that shouldn’t be asked at alumni interviews either. It isn’t right. It’s not their business.

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