Impact of the Order of Colleges on the FAFSA

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Each college or university must receive the student’s information from the FAFSA before its financial aid deadline. So, if the student is applying to more than ten colleges and universities, the student should list the colleges and universities with the earliest financial aid deadlines in the first set of colleges and universities.

Beginning with the 2016-2017 FAFSA, colleges can no longer see the full list of colleges listed on the FAFSA. Previously, colleges could see the full list of colleges on a student’s FAFSA. Most students listed the colleges in preference order, listing their first choice college and about a one-third of students admitted by their second-choice college first. Research has shown that students are less likely to enroll at a college that appears further down the list. For example, while about half to two-thirds of students admitted by their first-choice college will enroll, only about ten percent will enroll at their third-choice college.

Recognizing this, some colleges may have been using the order in which the colleges were listed on the FAFSA as a form of competitive intelligence to influence college admissions and financial aid decisions. For example, students are much less likely to enroll in a college that isn’t listed first, second or third. So, a college might decide against admitting the student in order to improve the college’s selectivity.

Some colleges want to maximize their yield, the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll at that school. Accordingly, some colleges are less likely to admit students who demonstrate less interest in the college. This is an open secret, although the practices at specific colleges are unknown. However, some private colleges may be more likely to use the student’s preference order on other financial aid and admission forms to influence college admissions decisions, since these colleges place more emphasis on improving their ranking in lists of top colleges.

Colleges also use the student’s preference order to get more certainty about their incoming class. As more students apply to more colleges, not only are the students worried about whether they will get in, but the colleges also worry about whether the students will enroll.

The order in which colleges are listed on other financial aid and admission forms can also affect eligibility for financial aid. While the order does not affect eligibility for federal student aid via the FAFSA, it can affect state and institutional aid. For example, the U.S. Department of Education mentions the potential impact on state aid in its Guide to Completing the FAFSA:

For purposes of federal student aid, it does not matter in what order you list the schools. However, to be considered for state aid, several states require you to list a state school first. Therefore, if you plan to list a state school in your state of residence as one of the schools in this section, you might want to list it first.

The list of colleges on the FAFSA will still be submitted to the state in which the student resides so that they can evaluate a student’s eligibility for state grants. Some state grants are restricted to students who enroll at one of the state’s public colleges. In some cases, one of the state’s public colleges must be listed first on the FAFSA.

In addition, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) amended its Statement of Principles of Good Practice on October 3, 2015 to state that colleges will “not ask candidates, their schools, their counselors or others to list or rank their college or university preferences on applications or other documents.”

Some colleges may use preferential packaging to award a smaller percentage of grants to students who list the college first, since students are more likely to enroll at their first-choice colleges even with a less favorable financial aid package.

Strategies for the Order of Colleges on the FAFSA

So, while the order of colleges listed on the FAFSA does not impact the student’s aid eligibility, what is the best order in which to list the colleges if the student is required to complete the other financial aid forms?

Listing the colleges in random or alphabetical order on other financial aid forms will not do any good, since the colleges will continue to assume that the first school in the list is the student’s first choice. The aggregate statistics for the college’s application pool demonstrate a strong correlation between the position of the college in the list of colleges and the chances the student will enroll if admitted. This allows a college to use the order listed to improve the college’s yield by admitting only students who list the college in the first few positions on other financial aid forms. The first three positions matter most. The order of the colleges listed in the fourth through tenth positions on other financial aid forms generally will not have a big influence on college admissions and financial aid decisions.

One strategy that might work in the student’s favor is to list his or her second-choice college first. The third-choice college should be listed in the second position and the first-choice college in the third position. A student’s first-choice college is usually a long shot, where the student’s preference for the college is unlikely to make a difference in the student’s chances of admission. This is especially true of the most elite colleges that admit a very small percentage of the applicant pool. The student’s second and third choices may be more reasonable options, where demonstrating a preference for the college may help influence the admission decision.

But it’s not just the order of the schools that matters. It’s also the set of schools. If a second-choice school sees several more elite institutions listed on other financial aid forms and they believe, based on the student’s admission application, that the student has a good chance of being admitted to one of those institutions, they might decide against admitting the student. After all, a student who gets into an Ivy League institution is unlikely to enroll at a second- or third-tier institution. So, this leads to strange circumstances where a student is admitted to an Ivy League institution and rejected by less selective institutions.

Note that after the student enters a list of schools on the other financial aid forms, he or she can change the order of the schools.

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