The College Aid War on the Middle Class

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By Vielka Hoy, Founder and CEO of Bridge to College

Earlier this year, a lawsuit by students was filed against sixteen prominent univer­si­ties — includ­ing Columbia, Duke, Georgetown and Yale — alleging an­titrust vi­o­la­tions be­cause of the way they work to­gether to deter­mine fi­nan­cial-aid awards for stu­dents, en­gage in price fix­ing, and un­fairly lim­it aid by us­ing a shared method­ol­ogy to cal­cu­late ap­pli­cants’ fi­nan­cial need. Granted, schools are al­lowed un­der fed­eral law to col­laborate on their for­mu­las if they don’t con­sider ap­pli­cants’ fi­nan­cial need in ad­mis­sions de­ci­sions. But when it comes to paying for today’s college, financial need is pervasive and easy to spot.

So once again, a group of big name colleges has been accused of sharing information gathered from families filling out the CSS Profile. Created by the College Board, the intended purpose of the College Scholarship Service Profile was to help colleges better understand students’ financial situations and needs when awarding nonfederal institutional aid. The CSS sounds perfectly normal in theory, which makes it easy for nearly four hundred colleges today to require first-year applicants to submit to it and then share the information with peer schools so that offers of financial aid are lessened across the board.

The word here is collusion, not cooperation. And due to a lack of attention, it keeps happening. Every year.

One possible reason this issue stays under the radar is confusion as to the actual victims. People hear the term “financial assistance” and assume that under-resourced kids are being targeted. Or they remember that the CSS was actually created to ferret out hidden assets of wealthy people trying to save a buck on tuition costs, and they think it’s a rich person’s problem. Neither is the case. Families with less than 80k in annual income aren’t asked to fill out the CSS because the government is filling the gaps, and colleges are eager to get them. While the truly rich avoid the process entirely. That leaves a target base of people who are genuinely middle class, or in many cases pretending to be rich.

The most dangerous household income for families seeking tuition assistance is $100k. Not nearly enough to be rich and $20k above the line to be classified as under-resourced. These are the silent people falling prey to the CSS-fueled collusion. In the interest of nickel and diming their financial aid package down to the minimum, colleges are subjecting these people to rigorous audits that would make the most strident IRS official blush. Divorce agreements are scrutinized, sporadic part-time income is projected to ridiculous levels, and needed assistance is chipped away. In all my years of counseling families through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) process, I have NEVER seen the offer of financial aid increase following cooperation with the CSS. Families take a hit and banks line up to soften the blow with loans that in many cases will never be paid back. This is why we at Bridge to College have always steered financially challenged students away from schools that use the CSS, and that is why I am publicly pushing back on the CSS and imploring middle class families to push back privately by choosing among the four thousand four-year institutions that don’t require it.

My advice to these families is simple: Decline to participate in the CSS, and move on to another perfectly good college that will actually support you.

Admission to a prestigious college is a source of joy, and definitely something to be proud of. Nobody is denying that. But too many middle class families are letting their guard down in the emotional whirlwind and cutting themselves off from money that will never be offered again. Pride is important. It keeps our heads up in tough times and it keeps us honest in good times. But for middle-income families, pride has no place in the college financing process.

About the Author:

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Vielka Hoy is founder and CEO of Bridge to College, an advanced search tool that uses dynamic data sources, research and machine learning to analyze a student’s unique circumstances and show them the colleges where they’ll thrive both before and after graduation. She is a long-time advocate of education, having taught in high-need schools and with under-resourced communities for over two decades. She has also taught and researched at the university-level at NYU, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, in the areas of race, educational technologies, college access, and teacher training. 

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