This fall, millions of prospective college students around the nation will be filling out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to determine if they are eligible for financial aid. The FAFSA allows students to list 10 schools where they would like their form to be submitted; many students, however, are unaware that some colleges use these rankings to inform their admission decision. In some cases, depending on how students ranked schools, university admission offices use that list to determine how much aid to grant students, often offering less money to students who rank their university highest. Universities are concealing their use of these FAFSA lists in order to best gauge student interest and save money, but a lack of transparency creates inaccurate surveys and hurts both schools and students. The fact that the admissions process considers how students prioritize their potential schools in the FAFSA needs to become common knowledge in order for both sides to benefit.

According to the College Board, more than two-thirds of full-time undergraduate students receive some type of financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships or work-study. Filling out the FAFSA provides a gateway to the nine federal student-aid grants, the 605 state student-aid program and most of the institutional aid available. It includes more than 100 questions about a student’s assets, income and dependency that are used alongside several other factors to determine a student’s financial aid eligibility. The form notes that the information included can be sent to state agencies that will be awarding the student’s aid, but it fails to mention that the same information will be sent to individual colleges — let alone used by these schools as a calculated admission tool.

Universities have found that their ranking on the FAFSA list is a very reliable tool in determining a student’s commitment to that institutions. W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president of Augustana College, shared with CBS that 60 percent of students who list Augustana first on their FAFSA list end up enrolling — a much higher percentage when compared to 30 percent of those who listed it second and the 10 percent who listed it third.

The lack of transparency around this tactic is unfair to those students who rank schools unaware of how the information can be used, both in determining a student’s admission and financial aid package. Counselors who are aware of this secretive, but strategic admission tool have advised their students to list the schools alphabetically to avoid disclosing their preferences. Students who are aware of this policy may rearrange their list to game the system, leaving other students at a disadvantage. The institutions also suffer because when students are not aware of this process, the information listed is less accurate, and therefore less useful for the schools.

Last Friday, InsideHigherEd contacted the U.S. Department of Education about this issue, and they said they will “review the longstanding practice of sharing the FAFSA positions with every college.” The department should undoubtedly work to make this a more transparent process that cannot adversely affect those who are unaware of how their information is being used.

One way that the Department of Education can work to make sure this process is beneficial to both students and institutions is by automatically alphabetizing the school rankings. This way, schools will know that they are part of the student’s top-10 list without rankings. If a student wishes to show more interest in particular schools, it is that student’s prerogative to reach out to these specific institutions and move forward in a way that is transparent and fair.

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