A U.S. congressman claimed earlier this month that Penn and over 100 other colleges may have been violating a federal education law.
However, Penn’s director of financial aid said the representative’s action was the result of a “misunderstanding.”
In a letter sent on Feb. 3 by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan , Cummings named 111 institutions of higher education, from an investigation of more than 200, that appeared to require that students complete additional, costly forms to apply for financial aid.
To apply for federal aid, students only need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. But Cummings’ letter said some schools also seem to require that students submit forms, like the CSS Profile, which come with a submission fee.
The CSS Profile costs $25 for the first school and $16 for each additional college. According to the Higher Education Act that Congress passed in 1992, it is illegal for schools to charge students a fee to apply for federal financial aid, as that would create additional hurdles for students seeking that aid.
While Cummings claimed Penn may have violated a federal law, Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens called the congressman’s letter a “misunderstanding” of how the University distributes funds to financial aid applicants.
Carstens said that Penn has always required only the FAFSA of students applying for solely federal financial aid. What may be unclear in the process is that Penn also provides some of its own funds for financial aid, and a CSS Profile and other forms are required for students to be eligible for Penn aid.
At Penn, Carstens estimates that federal aid contributes about $10 million of grant money to financial aid for undergraduates. Penn’s own funds constitute about $190 million of eligible grant money.
“I would say 99.9 percent of applicants apply for both [federal and Penn financial aid],” Carstens said.
Student Financial Services thought in the past that the distinction between applications for federal and Penn aid was clear. However, to ensure that all prospective applicants understand this, SFS updated their website on Feb. 4, the day after Cummings’ letter was published.
The updated site now has the following statement: “If you are intending to apply for only federal and/or state financial assistance, you need only submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the appropriate federal and/or state deadlines.”
“We’ve tried to make it even more clear,” Carstens said.
In response to the potential misinterpretation, Cummings said in an emailed statement that “the problem is not how I interpret financial aid requirements, but how potential applicants interpret them.”
“If a school’s requirements are unclear, it may be contravening the Higher Education Act,” he added.
However, Cummings also said he was “encouraged” that many of the schools listed in his letter - like Penn - have since taken action to address and clear up potential confusion surrounding financial aid application requirements.