This college does away with an onerous financial aid form for low-income students. Here’s why.

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For 15 years, Nicole Hurd led the College Advising Corps, a national college access organization that works with low-income and first-generation students. During this time, she regularly interviewed the group’s advisers and asked them informally about their concerns. Their # 1 complaint every time? The CSS profile.

This is the name of the online financial aid form that students have to fill out to apply for institutional aid at many top colleges. The app, owned by the College Board, is used by more than 300 colleges and scholarship agencies to allocate more than $ 9 billion a year to students in need. Providing a complete picture of the applicant’s financial situation and family history, the form is more detailed than the Free Federal Student Aid Application, or FAFSA, which families use to apply for government grants and loans.

But many college access advocates have described the CSS profile as a barrier for students who tend to need help with the admissions process the most – and who have great financial need. As The Chronicle reported in a feature article this year, filling out the tedious form can be a difficult, even demoralizing experience.

“We’re forcing low-income students to prove they are poor over and over again, and that’s not acceptable,” says Hurd, founder and former CEO of the counseling organization. “It takes a long time to complete the Profile, and it is more difficult if you are not an English speaker, if your tax status is complicated or if you are not in communication with both of your parents. This shape is a problem.

It’s really about breaking down barriers. In higher education, we put a lot of unnecessary obstacles.

After becoming president of Lafayette College this summer, Hurd shared her concerns about the app with other administrators. On Thursday, the institution, which has long required all aid seekers to complete the form, announced that it would grant an exemption to low-income students – a small change which the prominent access expert said. colleges, deals with larger issues.

In an interview with The Chronicle this week, Hurd described the new policy and why she thinks it is important for college leaders to carefully consider their financial aid needs.

As I reported this year, concerns about the CSS profile have prompted some colleges that use the form to reconsider the requirement. The University of Chicago has created a short helper app that students can use instead. Recently, Clark University announced that it will drop the profile for families with adjusted gross income below $ 100,000. Lafayette will do something different. Please explain.

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We will no longer require the form for applicants attending high schools where 75 percent or more of students are eligible for a free and discounted lunch. The responsibility is now on us. When students tell us which high school they attend, we’ll know when they don’t have to complete the profile because we have a list of those high schools. The paradigm shift here is that instead of asking a student to verify their financial situation, we will use aggregate data – high school data that is publicly recognized as important – to override the requirement.

Where did this idea come from?

This comes from my experience with the College Advising Corps. Over the past 15 years, we have partnered with hundreds of high schools where 75% or more of students are entitled to a free and discounted lunch. High school is an interesting unit of measurement that those of us in higher education may not think about enough. So it came from thinking about the broader ways we could identify low income students without creating a burden for them, and ways to make the financial aid process more streamlined and efficient.

How will a student know if they are eligible? And what about low-income students who attend high schools with many affluent students?

All school counselors are aware of the free and discounted lunch rate in their high school. So they can say, “If you are applying to Lafayette, you don’t need to fill out the form. We will also monitor applications and notify students who do not have to.

We will be waiving the CSS profile for all students who qualify for a free and discounted lunch, regardless of which high school they attend. We’ll just need the student or advisor to help us report the student as part of the application process.

What about students who are not entitled to free and discounted lunches, but who might still be in great financial need and find it difficult to form?

We will continue to learn as the implementation progresses. We will have the option of waiving the CSS profile for anyone who requests it, and we will do so as we review the requests.

Many financial aid managers have told me that the CSS Profile provides essential information that enables them to make more accurate and fair decisions than they could using FAFSA alone. But you say that for low income students the extra layer of information is unnecessary.

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That’s right. Colleges that use the CSS profile try to make good decisions about limited financial aid. My concern is that if everyone is already filling out the FAFSA, you already have the level of information you need for low income students. We do not need to obtain such detailed information that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to apply for financial assistance. Now that I’m sitting in the higher education space, I see that we don’t really need it for this student population.

The question then is: what is the least invasive instrument that we can use? For me, using the FAFSA and a high school’s free, discounted lunch rate is a lot easier for the student than digging through tax forms and people’s retirement accounts, or finding a parent who hasn’t. custody, as required by the profile.

We in the financial aid space spend so much time pushing the individual. So let’s try to push this towards the collective and say, “You don’t have to because your school’s free, discounted lunch rate is going to get you through the door. It’s really about breaking down barriers. In higher education, we put a lot of unnecessary obstacles.

The biggest hurdle for many students is paying for college, as you know well after many years of working with low income applicants. Now you now run an institution where the total cost of attendance is over $ 70,000 per year, and where before Covid, in fall 2019, 11.6% of freshmen were eligible for Federal Pell Grants. This fall, it’s about 7 percent.

What do you think of these figures? As we overcome the disruption of the pandemic, how can the college remove the barriers to enroll more low-income, first-generation students?

One of the shutters is to forgo the CSS profile. The second, as we are announcing this week, is to eliminate loans for families earning $ 150,000 or less. I know there is a ton of talent, and Pell-eligible talent, in this population. Often, small liberal arts colleges do not make the paths to such institutions as clear as they should be. Our goal is to continue to increase diversity on this campus. These initiatives aim to ensure that we can recruit the best and brightest students, regardless of the economic situation.

As of fall 2019, about 6% of domestic students in Lafayette’s freshman class were black, 8% were Hispanic, and 5% were Asian American. When you look at these single digit numbers, what goes through your mind?

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There is no doubt that in Lafayette and in many other institutions like us, the number of first generation, low-income and under-represented students must be higher. My other concern is this: access is not inclusion. What bothers me when we just look at the raw numbers is that you can actually admit a lot of students and then they don’t have a hard-hitting experience, or they have a negative experience. It’s not as simple as, “Hey, I can admit all these students, and now I have a two-digit number, and I can congratulate myself and say that we are now a diverse institution. “

Okay, but have you really thought about the support system, the infrastructure, the things you need to make students feel seen, valued and heard? Yes, we need to increase all of these numbers. We also need to make sure that we don’t treat people like numbers. We all still have a lot of work to do to make sure we have the right support systems, ensuring that our students are seen, valued and heard. It’s not just a digital lens.

Let’s go back to the CSS profile and how you see it in relation to bigger issues. Most college presidents don’t have years of college access experience like you do. What would you like them to know about what it is like to fill out that particular form? And why should they care?

It’s not just the form. It’s emotional drainage to fill it. And it’s not just students, it’s families who need to be involved in these financial aid disclosures. This gives them the impression that they do not belong to higher education. Often low income families are nervous, maybe intimidated. These barriers that make things worse.

The form really sets the stage for a student’s higher education experience. Even if they successfully complete the FAFSA and Profile, even if they are admitted, they bring a feeling with them to the campus. And they might not feel welcome.

It was clear to me, working on access, that these early interactions were important. When we start a relationship by telling a student to answer all of these questions because we think they might be playing with the system and have an expected family contribution of $ 0, or they are attending a school with a large population of students with free access and at reduced rates. – lunch price, what do we tell them?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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