Northwestern updates website after congressman accuses colleges of creating financial aid hurdles

Lan Nguyen, Reporter

Northwestern’s undergraduate financial aid office made changes to its website after U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) accused many elite colleges, including NU, of violating federal law by misleading students to believe they have to pay to apply for federal aid.

In a letter dated Feb. 3 to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Cummings singled out 111 U.S. colleges and universities, providing screenshots of their financial aid websites.

Many websites said students needed to fill out the College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, in addition to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Only the FAFSA is required to receive federal aid such as Pell grants and work-study. 

“I don’t think that the institutions that he listed would do that at all,” Director of Financial Aid Carolyn Lindley said. “If you look at those colleges, they have some of the most generous financial aid programs in the country.”

Shortly after the letter was released, NU made additions to its undergraduate financial aid website stating more clearly that if students wish to apply for federal aid, they only need to submit the FAFSA.

“We had the information elsewhere on our website,” Lindley said. “We moved the information up to make it more prominent.”

Lindley declined to comment on whether the website change was in response to Cummings’ allegations.

The Higher Education Act says institutions may not charge students to complete the FAFSA. However, colleges are allowed to issue the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which costs $25 for one college and $16 for each additional school. Students may receive up to six fee waivers for the CSS Profile. 

The profile provides more information and helps determine institutional aid packages. Schools cannot require this form for students who only want to apply for federal aid.   

Cummings’ letter included a screenshot of NU’s financial aid website, which asked students to fill out both financial aid forms without including a distinction for students only seeking federal aid. The website now includes a clarifying statement. 

“Congress banned this practice in 1992 because it creates undue hurdles for students seeking federal student aid,” Cummings wrote in his letter.

A College Board spokeswoman Kate Levin sent a statement via email, saying she is “confident that colleges are using the CSS Profile properly.” 

Provost Dan Linzer also refuted the accusations, stressing NU’s need-blind admission process for students who live in the U.S. He said the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is necessary for determining NU’s institutional aid. 

“The vast majority of aid that our students receive is institutional aid,” Linzer said. “We need to gather as much information as possible to grant them sufficient funds.”

NU requires the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE for institutional aid because it gives a better understanding of a student’s financial needs than the information provided in the FAFSA, Lindley said. NU asks specific questions about students’ lives — including family members, businesses and cars — in order to assess need.

Lindley said NU has a “robust financial aid program,” which requires the University to gather a lot of information to prepare aid packages.

“The FAFSA is just a snapshot in time,” she said. “With the profile, parents and students get the opportunity to give us their special circumstances.”

Weinberg freshman Wan Kwok said she found some of the questions unnecessary. 

“Out of all the CSS Profiles I filled out, I felt that Northwestern’s was one of the most invasive universities,” Kwok said. “I was asked what kind of car my parents drive, and I feel like that is a flawed thing to base a judgment of need off of.”

NU awarded $125 million in undergraduate scholarships during the 2013-2014 academic year, with about 45 percent of undergraduate students receiving an NU scholarship. 

Weinberg senior Chris Anderson said despite Cummings’ concerns, he trusts NU’s financial aid system.

“If Northwestern didn’t care about helping students who deserve to be here pay for tuition, then they wouldn’t be so generous with financial aid,” he said.

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