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FAFSA position: media beportrayal, one-sided advocacy and windmill fighting #emchat #admissions #nacac #FAFSA

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It’s been about two weeks since the Department of Education announced that colleges would no longer be able to see other colleges to which a student had sent the FAFSA. This change will take place with the introduction of the 2016-17 FAFSA. Many in the college admissions world celebrated, slapped high-fives and declared, “It’s about time.” These victory dances are a bit silly and actually may prove to be a bit reckless.

I believe DoE’s decision offers a glimpse into some of the things that are going sideways in the profession I’ve enjoyed for nearly 25 years.

I may be an outlier, but I’ve found a college’s FAFSA position to be a very effective tool for doing my job and serving students. Knowing my college’s apparent rank in order on a student’s FAFSA is particularly useful for:

  • Predicting enrollment
  • Projecting yield patterns
  • Verifying direct competition (using the FAFSA overlap alongside another resource that verifies enrollment to triangulate patterns)
  • Prioritizing outreach to students and customizing communication

I believe most practitioners who have found FAFSA position to be of value have used this information in the same way I have—ethically, responsibly and to improve communication with students.

So, after the disclosure above, let me tell you what went sideways in relation to this particular issue.

DoE’s action on this issue was influenced by some things that are just wrong:

Media portrayal—The reporting about FAFSA position has been awful. It has included sensationalized headlines that served as the proverbial dog whistle for those looking for conspiracies in the college admissions work. Here are a couple headlines that shaped the coverage of this issue.

Be careful what you share on the FAFSA

Colleges use FAFSA to reject applicants

Read the articles, because the content does not support the headlines. These articles relied on coulds, mights and mays, rather than identifying a college or colleges that misuse FAFSA information. (You may notice I am mentioned in both articles; I’ve tried to be a part of this conversation.) Media portrayal on complex issues like this should be more exact. How could one not react negatively to these headlines?

One-sided advocacy—NACAC, which last time I checked was a membership organization, completely let down a segment of its membership on this issue. In my view, NACAC never sought a real conversation about FAFSA position and its use among its diverse membership. Instead, NACAC allowed a very vocal and outspoken segment of its membership to define the organization’s, and therefore the members’, position on this matter. My interests, and those of other members like me, were essentially ignored. Such a sad development has become predictable. NACAC must be an advocate for all members, not just some—and allow adequate time for the organization to hear from everyone and develop a position.

Fighting windmills—Like Don Quixote, many of those most critical of FAFSA position and admissions saw dragons where none exist. They conflated use of FAFSA position to predict enrollment with FAFSA position to make admissions decisions. Let me be clear…they made that up! The windmill fighters on this particular issue consistently applied “what ifs” or, lacking evidence, leapt to conclusions.

Celebrators of DoE’s decision seem to have some special knowledge of inappropriate use of FAFSA position that they’ve never shared with an Admissions Practices committee. I find this particularly ironic. They could have reported misuse to an AP Committee, but they didn’t.And, I am not aware of a single instance of a regional or the national Admissions Practices committee hearing a complaint about misuse of FAFSA position and non-compliance with the Statement of Principles and Good Practices.

This is not the first time well-intentioned people have mistaken windmills for dragons, and it won’t be the last. But, we can do better. In times past we would have worked as colleagues to gain a better understanding of this practice before declaring one side as evil and unethical.

I hope for better days ahead.

DoE has spoken, colleges will adapt and this will be a blip. But there will be consequences to this decision that some won’t like. I would not be surprised to see the following things happen in the coming years:

  • More moderately and highly selective colleges begin requiring the CSS Profile because it provides overlap data
  • More colleges and universities introduce an institutional financial aid form, to determine who is most interested and will take the time to perform an extra step
  • More colleges and universities of all ranges of selectivity will introduce binding Early Decision admissions plans since an ED application is the ultimate signal of interest and intent to enroll
  • More colleges and universities will introduce much earlier deadlines for financial aid applications to see who is listening and paying attention
  • Some colleges will introduce “priority financial aid” with strings attached to work with those who are most interested

It will be interesting to watch what happens.

What do you think about all of this?

Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

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2 Comments

  1. Kent, I think your comments are spot-on. Personally, I’ve often felt that NACAC fails to listen to the less selective, private, often smaller institutions so the lack of support on this issue doesn’t surprise me. Colleges and Universities will adapt as you suggest. I found the FAFSA position to be a great resource to confirm intuition that I have on a class – good and bad! And, I found that given the time that this information is received, it’s difficult to improve a rank position. However, given the timing change for FAFSA information in the coming years, that rank position “may” be used differently if available. But, that is now a mute point. Best wishes on a successful fall!

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