Sep 30, 2015

The 2016-17 financial aid season officially kicks-off with CSS PROFILE

The College of William & Mary

It’s the lesser known financial aid application.  And most families who are new to the process have no clue that the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Financial Aid PROFILE is required by nearly 400 colleges, universities, professional schools and scholarship programs for nonfederal financial aid consideration. It is filed separately from and often in addition to the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

And for families with students applying to colleges requiring two financial aid applications, October 1 marks the official launch date for the 2016-17 CSS PROFILE—yet another in the series of applications and forms necessary in the ever-more-challenging college admissions process.

Locally, CSS PROFILE is used by American University, Catholic University, the College of William & Mary, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Goucher College, Johns Hopkins, Loyola of Maryland, Patrick Henry College, the University of Richmond, St. John's College, the University of Virginia, and Washington and Lee University.

Over the next few months, every college-bound senior and his or her family will be urged to complete the FAFSA to qualify for federal financial aid. The online FAFSA form will become available on January 1 and should be completed as close to the start of the New Year as possible.

But the CSS PROFILE requires an entirely separate filing and evaluation process. For those needing to submit the additional form, it amounts to another wall to scale in the process of securing sufficient funds for college. And it can be a headache—an expensive one at that.

While the FAFSA is a free service brought to you by your federal government, CSS PROFILE is a program administered by the College Board and involves a fee. Unlike FAFSA, which uses the same application for everyone, the PROFILE is specifically tailored to meet the needs of individual institutions and programs. Extra questions may appear on a student’s form depending on the list of schools and scholarships provided when registering for the PROFILE.

It’s not all bad news. There are some tradeoffs in the data collected by the PROFILE. While taking into account all the sources of income and assets used by the FAFSA, the PROFILE asks for some additional information such as home equity, the income/assets of a noncustodial parent, or the cash value of insurance plans. On the other side of the ledger, the PROFILE takes into consideration expenses such as medical, dental, or private school tuition.

And then there’s the fee. The cost for submitting an initial application and sending one college or program report is $25. Additional reports are $16 each. These charges are subject to change each year, and they don't tend to go down.

For very low-income students, fee waivers for up to eight colleges or scholarship opportunities are available and granted automatically based on information entered on the PROFILE application. International students are not eligible for fee waivers.

The PROFILE may be filed any time after October 1, and colleges typically want the paperwork completed at least two weeks before posted “priority” filing deadlines. Because these can come surprisingly early in the application process, the PROFILE is usually completed with estimated numbers.

Applicants definitely need to pay attention to deadlines.

For example, Johns Hopkins wants a completed CSS PROFILE and a CSS Noncustodial PROFILE (for divorced families only) by November 15 for early decision candidates; Georgetown requests that all financial aid applications (including the FAFSA) be completed by February 1; William & Mary requires the CSS PROFILE (but not the Noncustodial form) for early decision candidates by December 12 and regular decision by March 1; and American has set separate deadlines for Early Decision I (November 15) and Early Decision II (January 15) in addition to the deadline for regular decision candidates (February 1—also American’s deadline for FAFSA).

And note the warning from American, If you don't submit the FAFSA and Profile on or before the deadlines, it is unlikely your financial aid application will be considered for grants, although you may still be eligible for consideration for federal loans.”  This holds true for most colleges.

The College Board directs all questions to Customer Support, which may be reached at 305-420-3670 or by emailing Note that there is no “toll-free” number. Not surprisingly, most everything about this program costs.

Sep 29, 2015

80 colleges unite to form revolutionary new college application—access or marketing?

Yale University has been very involved in forming the new "Coalition"

Eighty big-name colleges and universities announced yesterday a plan to turn the college admissions industry on its head by the creation of a plan by which colleges will court applicants via an extended application process beginning as early as ninth grade.

The new group, called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, has been quietly working behind the scenes to devise a new approach to applying to college that will suit their individual institutional needs while capitalizing on shared resources and common interests.  They’ve contracted with CollegeNet to develop a platform of college planning tools, including a new application and a glitzy new website. 

Members of the Coalition include a diverse group of public universities that “have affordable tuition along with need-based financial aid for in-state residents, and private colleges and universities that provide sufficient financial aid to meet the full, demonstrated financial need of every domestic student they admit.”  According to a press release from the Coalition, member schools graduate at least 70 percent of their students within six years with many having significantly higher graduation rates.

“Coalition schools offer students incredible choice in location, size, selectivity, and mission, but we all share a commitment that students we admit can afford to attend and will have a high likelihood of graduating,” said James G. Nondorf, vice president for enrollment at the University of Chicago.

In a nutshell, the Coalition is developing a free platform of online college planning and application tools.  The tools will include a digital portfolio, a collaboration platform, and an application portal. 

High school students would be encouraged to add to their online portfolios beginning in the ninth grade examples of their best work, short essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities, videos, etc.  Students could opt to share or not share all or part of their portfolios with college admissions or counseling staff and “community mentors.”  Note that a similar platform currently exists on the ZeeMee website, which is already used by a handful of colleges to provide portfolio-building services and link to applications.

In addition, the Coalition plans to introduce a new online application system that will be a “cutting-edge tool for applying to many schools in the Coalition.”  According to the coalition website, the application has been designed “to minimize student stress, confusion, and intimidation while empowering universities to ask questions that will reveal students with the greatest fit for their campuses” 

It’s unquestionably an ambitious plan. And its success appears dependent on the support of some heavy hitters in the admissions industry, who are forming a somewhat exclusive club.

Members include every Ivy League university, a handful of selective liberal arts colleges, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, the “public ivy” group including UVa, Chapel Hill and Michigan, as well as several highly-visible public institutions that previously shied away from Common App membership including Indiana University, Pitt, the University of Maryland College Park, James Madison University, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Washington (some already CollegeNet users).

And how much will the competition hurt the Common Application?  Inside Higher Ed reports that coalition members plan to offer but not require the coalition application and expect to continue having a majority of applicants apply through the Common App—at least for the time being.

According to the coalition website, the online portfolio of college planning tools will be open to high school students starting in January 2016.  Those colleges opting to accept applications through the site will be able to do so as early as July 2016.

Billed as a system designed to have students think more deeply about what they are learning or accomplishing in high school by the development of online portfolios, the new endeavor will actually create efficient ways for college admissions officers to access more detailed information about prospective applicants earlier in the game.

“I’m not convinced about the true intentions of the coalition,” commented one dean of admissions whose institution elected not to join the Coalition in an email to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The schools participating in this effort should not mask their intentions on the guise of ‘access.’ It’s a deceiving marketing ploy…”

The coalition application is an interesting concept, but begs the question of who will benefit more from the information-sharing plan—high school students or colleges.  And while the plan is promoted as helping students—particularly disadvantaged students—to present themselves to colleges in a more robust manner, it seems likely that students able to afford early college coaching may actually benefit quite a bit from being able to post their accomplishments on a platform viewed and commented on by admissions staff.

Many questions remain, but one thing remains certain.  If this plan gets off the ground, the process of college admissions will be anything but simpler.

Sep 28, 2015

Virginia Tech says ‘no’ to old SAT for high school class of 2017

Virginia Tech

Much to the surprise of some members of the high school class of 2017, Virginia Tech has decided not to accept the “old” SAT for fall 2017 admission.  Taking a position that is somewhat at odds with the majority of colleges and universities in the country, Tech will only accept the new or “redesigned” SAT (rSAT) or the ACT for applicants to Hokie Class of 2021.

According to the Virginia Tech website, “Those who plan to apply to Virginia Tech for the fall of 2017 and beyond, are required to take either the ACT or the redesigned SAT test, which will be available on March 6, 2016."

While Virginia Tech might be largely alone in its policy relative to the class of 2017, more than a few colleges are signaling possible preferences for the rSAT in requirements being published for future applicants.  For example, Yale recently announced that in deference to the quality of the rSAT, SAT Subject Tests would no longer be required and seemed to suggest a mild preference for the rSAT.

“There’s no perfect standardized admissions test,” said Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admission Jeremiah Quinlan in an interview with the Yale Daily News. “But the redesigned SAT does look to be an improvement over the last exam, in terms of clearness and connection to [the college] curriculum.”

Jonathan Burdick, Vice President and Dean of College Admission at the University of Rochester, agrees, “We will prefer the new test over the old at Rochester because it’s a better test of the skills we value.”

It’s worth noting that Rochester has “one of the most progressive testing policies anywhere.”  Their test flexible policy allows for a wide variety of tests to fulfill admissions requirements including SAT Reasoning, ACT, two or more results from SAT Subject Tests, Advanced Placement, IB and others.

Yet Dean Burdick is clear about how the “old” SAT will be treated in future credential reviews:  “I think the new SAT is a better test, so for those students who submit both new and old SAT scores, I believe that during review and Committee we are likely going to rely on those new scores more.  I suppose that means at the margins that a current junior who scores well this fall and then scores less well next year might be less likely to be admitted.”

Other institutions have taken a more neutral approach, even going so far as to suggest tests are good for multiple years so anyone submitting the old SAT between now and its expiration five years from now, will have those scores considered for admission.  

Still others have simply lost confidence in the ability of standardized tests to predict much of anything and have taken the opportunity to drop optional sections of both the ACT and the SAT or announce test-optional policies for the future.

Most institutions are aware that test prep planning takes place months if not years in advance of application submission.  In the D.C. area, many companies scheduled classes specifically targeted to the old SAT this past summer, and literally thousands of dollars have been invested by families hoping to prepare applicants for a test which has its last administration in January of 2016.  

“We've been dealing with the fallout from [the Virginia Tech] decision as well,” commented a tutor reacting to the policy concerning fall 2017 applicants. “While I'm starting to see some students who might benefit from the new SAT (much less vocabulary, greater time per question), it's definitely been a very upsetting week for many people.”

So far, no other colleges or universities have come forward with policies similar to that of Virginia Tech. But it bears watching as more information becomes available about the rSAT and colleges get sold on its value.

Sep 25, 2015

7 potential game changers for the Class of 2017

Over the next year, some significant changes in the college admission process will be set in motion.  And for better or worse, they will have the most immediate impact on the high school class of 2017.  

While first-time college applicants may or may not be totally aware of how various adjustments in testing, financial aid, applications and admissions requirements affect them, their advisers are certain to experience fallout from the confusion that inevitably follows major changes in the system. And many are already starting to dread the prospect of dealing with so much commotion, on so many different fronts, all at one time.

While much more will be written about each of the following game-changers for the class of 2017, here is a brief glimpse of what we already know they’ll be dealing with:

A NEW PSAT.  The College Board is set to launch a redesigned PSAT/NMSQT in October, 2015.  In addition to introducing students (and others) to the new or redesigned SAT (see below), it will serve as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) for the class of 2017.  While the Board has released some practice information for the new PSAT/NMSQT, test prep organizations that specifically target the NMSQT have been scrambling to pull together enough material to prepare students for the scholarship competition. The upshot has been considerable last-minute discussion on the content, timing and scaling of the new test, much of which has been entirely missed by the majority of students taking it in a few weeks.  Add to the confusion the fact that for the first (and hopefully last) time, the PSAT will not be available for administration on a Saturday.  For schools and school systems that have traditionally refused to take instructional time away from students to give the test during the school day, the absence of a Saturday alternative has posed administrative and logistical difficulty, especially making sure that all members of the class of 2017, who need the test for NMS consideration, have the opportunity to take it.  While the good news is that test-takers are free to “guess” on the new PSAT/NMSQT (all penalties for wrong answers have been removed), the bad news is the test is 35 minutes longer than the old one.

A NEW SAT.  In March 2014, the ColIege Board announced that the SAT would be entirely redesigned for debut two years later in March 2016—just in time for the class of 2017 to pilot.  Changes to the test include a new structure, a new score, new sections, and even an all-new approach to testing, which appears remarkably similar to the ACT (see below).  The announcement sent the test prep industry into a frenzy of speculation and detailed analyses of each tidbit of information released about the new test.  But for the class of 2017, the biggest issues ultimately came down to which test to take and when.  Most experts agree that it’s not such a bad idea to take the old SAT (assuming most colleges will accept the results for the class of 2017), especially if the student has some track record of doing well on the old format.  And no one thinks taking the new test in March or May, before any results become available, is a good plan.  So where does that leave members of the class of 2017, who need test results to help formulate college lists, schedule tours and otherwise plan for applying to college? Take the ACT and see.  There’s always June for the new SAT, if results look promising after the first administrations.  While the good news is that the Essay (Writing) section is now optional, the bad news is that the new test with the essay is longer.

A NEW ACT. A month after the College Board made its announcement, ACT announced that minor adjustments would be made to the Writing section of its test for September 2015—about six months before the new SAT.  While the changes were subtle, they did call for a slightly different approach and set of skills. Because of the focus on the new SAT, most test-takers failed to take note of the change and it remains to be seen what kind of an impact it will have on the class of 2017.  As a side note, however, ACT used this opportunity to expand the reporting it does on test results.  Starting with the September test, ACT will generate two new hybrid scores in English Language Arts and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  And for approximately 450 institutional participants in ACT Research Services, ACT will be providing assessments of “Overall GPA Chances of Success” in general categories of majors (education, business administration, liberal arts, and engineering) as well as “Specific Course Chances of Success” in areas such as freshman English, college algebra, history, chemistry, psychology etc.  Test-takers, who provide key information necessary to make these assessments during the registration process, will not be sent these reports. They go directly to colleges to which the student is applying—whether the applicant wants them to or not.  Finally, a digital version of the ACT is on the horizon for some members of the class of 2017, with expanded release planned for spring 2016.  While the good news is that most admissions professionals are recommending the ACT for the class of 2017, the bad news is that some of the reports ACT plans to send to colleges may not be what applicants want colleges to see.

A NEW FAFSA Timeline.  Starting next year, students and their families will be able to file their FAFSA as early as October.  For purposes of filing early, applicants will be using “prior-prior-year” tax information, which federal officials hope will help students and their families determine the cost of attending college much earlier in the process. For the class of 2017, this means the base year for financial aid eligibility would be this year and not next year.  In other words, by now there is nothing to be done in terms of changing a family’s financial circumstances to align more favorably with federal requirements.  The good news is that colleges will no longer have an excuse for delaying the provision of financial aid packages for those submitting early.  The bad news is that it’s too late for the class of 2017 to pay down the mortgage or max out retirement accounts in time to have an impact on financial aid eligibility. And the worst news is that colleges are wondering how they will be able to redesign application timelines and financial aid processes to make all this happen in time for implementation next year.

A NEW Application.  Working quietly behind the scenes, an “exploratory committee” composed of some big-name member colleges in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) has been working on a new application platform designed to be an “alternative” to the Common Application.  Last year, an RFP was circulated to major vendors, and CollegeNet was selected to put the plan in place.  Although details have been slow to emerge, The Chronicle reports the group, known as the “Coalition,” has expanded to include members of the Association of American Universities and the Annapolis Group, which represents more than 100 liberal arts colleges. According to The Chronicle, the new Coalition Application proposes to engage students as early as the 9th grade by encouraging the development of an online or digital profile and portfolio. The plan is to make the new application available next year, in time for use by the class of 2017, although it seems unlikely that most would benefit from an application dependent on long-term portfolio development. Nevertheless, it’s rumored that announcements will be made at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) annual meeting in San Diego, next week.  

NEW Admissions Requirements.  It’s not unusual for colleges to make changes in their admission requirements from one year to the next.  But this year and next are setting up a perfect storm for applicants and those who advise them.  First, with the debut of the new SAT, colleges are rethinking the importance of the writing or essay sections of both the SAT and the ACT.  Some, like Penn and Swarthmore, decided to go ahead and drop these requirements for fall 2016 admission.  But many more are making the decision to no longer require these sections for fall 2017 admission.  It’s hard to keep up with, but both the College Board and ACT have tools for checking whether or not the tests are required.  In addition, changes in Common Application membership guidelines have resulted in significant numbers of colleges dropping essay and recommendation requirements.  To keep up with these changes and those to come is all but a full time job.  And don’t look for press releases.  Colleges don’t always feel the need to make announcements regarding fundamental changes in their admissions policies. The good news is that colleges generally clearly post admissions requirements on their websites.  The bad news is they can be changed in an instant with only a few strokes of a keyboard.

Many NEW Test-optional/Test-flexible Colleges.  Since spring of 2014, about 30 colleges and universities have announced the adoption of test-optional or test-flexible admissions plans, according to FairTest.  The most recent announcements have come from George Washington University, Marymount University, and Catholic University.  But they join Beloit, Hoftstra, Temple, VCU, Wesleyan and an impressive number of other institutions seeking different ways to evaluate applicants.  It’s unclear whether it’s the new SAT or a focus on successful outcomes reported by test-optional colleges that is  driving the trend. Regardless, the good news is that an increasing number of colleges are putting test scores aside in favor of more holistic approaches to admissions.