Working with Athletes -- "The Wild West!"

by Melissa Brock
Official Blogger for NCAG

An extra year of eligibility & the Transfer Portal directly impact high school students. The recent changes in transfer rules mean college coaches get to decide whether to fill spots on their rosters with experienced athletes.

As an independent college consultant, working with student-athletes is different from working with non-student athletes, wouldn't you say? 

To make things even more interesting, the NCAA has unleashed a new set of rules related to athletic recruiting. If you've ever heard of the words "Transfer Portal," you know it's like the Wild West out there. 

What's the Transfer Portal, just in case you've never heard of it? 

The Transfer Portal was created as a compliance tool to manage the transfer process and add more transparency to the process. It also empowers student-athletes to make their wishes known that they wanted to consider other programs. 

Once student-athletes ask a compliance administrator to place their name in the portal, the school has two business days to do so.

Previously, when student-athletes wanted to transfer, they had to ask their coach for permission to contact other schools, but the coach could deny the request. Then the athlete had to go to the athletics director to get approved. If it then didn't get approved, they'd have to go to a campus administrator, such as a dean of students. Then, it would have to go to a committee on campus.

Those who didn't receive permission still could transfer but wouldn't be allowed to access athletic aid at the new school. Read: Athletes had to fight and beg to be put in the Transfer Portal. 

Now, the school has to make it happen within 48 hours. That's a good thing because it gives athletes more power over their process. 

However, where it gets interesting is that it directly impacts high school students. Now that these new transfer rules have been put into place, colleges get to decide whether they want to fill their programs with older athletes or not. In programs where size matters (like football), it's easier to see how a coach might prefer to get someone who has been in the weight room for two years instead of a high school kid who hasn't had college-level strength and conditioning.  

If you haven't already encouraged the high school athletes you're working with to open their list wider, go for it. As a result, high school student-athletes have been looking at community college options, preferred walk-on options, etc. 

The questions now become:
Can I walk on and get a scholarship my second year?
Can I go to a lower-tier DI school, enter the portal and trade up?
-- Can I go to a Division III program at first, then enter the portal to play at a higher level?" 

Another conundrum: In 2020, college student-athletes were given an extra year after the COVID-19 season didn't happen. Many college athletes did not graduate after 2020, so a lot of college coaching programs had to juggle -- again, another disadvantage to high school athletes! Obviously, a global pandemic is nobody's fault but it has had a tremendous impact on athletic recruiting and the process itself.

Do the changes create more opportunities? Maybe it's too early to tell.

Posted in College Admissions Criteria, Financial Aid.


by George Gately, CCA
     NCAG Member since 2012
     Past Board President

All of the students in the high school graduating Class of 2023, and their families, will be affected by the changes in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some will find a more generous offer of assistance; some less generous.

The Federal Student Aid Office has delayed implementation of some of the changes (but not all) initiated in response to the FAFSA Simplification Act, and the FUTURE Act (congressional legislation of December, 2020). Specifics, at the time of this writing, are not delineated, other than in broad outline. Nevertheless, as IEC's we are in the midst of working with students who are rising 11th graders, perhaps rising 10th graders and younger. Therefore, for planning purposes we will prove our professional bona fides by knowing what is coming, regardless of the date of FSA's actions.

The greatest, and potentially negative impact will be on
  • families of divorce
  • families with more than one student in college at the same time
  • small business owners
  • family farm owners.
Here is a summary of current, or soon-to-be-implemented changes:
  • EFC (Expected Family Contribution) becomes SAI (Student Aid Index). SAI is defined as the amount of financial resources of a family available to pay for college. We are assured the difference in nomenclature is substantially that alone. Experience warns us that is probably not accurate in effect. With the replacement of the Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) with the Direct Data Transfer (FADDX), tax returns become more determinative of basic, financial qualification.
  • NEED = COA SAI OFA (other financial assistance). Professional Judgment (PJ) discretion is expanded (or relaxed, depending on how you want to consider it). Furthermore, no school may hold a "No PJ Policy." PJ must be considered, but with no requirement for application of PJ overall, or in particular instances. PJ simply must be documented in the records.
  • Families of divorce will be asked which parent provides the most financial support for the student (rather than, with whom is the student living one-half of a year plus one day, or longer). As of the date of this publication, no time parameters are determined. What does that mean? I can't say for sure, other than it means college financial aid offices are going to dig deeper into the financial arrangements of families of divorce.
  • Child Support will no longer be counted as "untaxed income," but rather as a parent asset.
  • The current asset exclusion of family-owned businesses and family-owned farms is gone. The asset value of each shall be included in the SAI calculation.
  • Simplified Needs Test (which removes assets from an SAI calculation) is based on AGI under $60,000.
  • The number of family members in college at the same time, as a consideration, will be fazed out; although I suspect that PJ will allow for that to be considered. Therefore, it should be noted in "Other Information" provided to the colleges.
Two other considerations represent the proverbial double-edged sword. One is that the end of PELL Grant eligibility after 12 semesters is removed. The other side is that Direct Student Loan time limit of 150% of satisfactory academic progress is also removed. Students will be able to drag out their college education beyond six years. That may assist some students in extraordinary circumstances. Many more students, I suspect, will find it as an easy way to remain in college and delay career-level earnings (which contributes materially to the opportunity cost of higher education, and consequently, reduces the value of a bachelor's degree during a working lifetime).

More can be said, but I refer you to the FSA website (here), and to the FSA Conference 2021 recordings (here: GS5 - FAFSA SIMPLIFICATION).

Posted in Financial Aid.

Students Win When They Communicate

By Melissa Brock
Pella, IA
Official Blogger for NCAG

I spent 12 years working in college admission. Over the course of time, college admission became more and more a transactional experience. By the time I left the field, I was lucky to talk to a parent over the phone, much less a student. After meeting with a family in the admission office, I had a better chance of hearing from them again, but it wasn't always guaranteed. It was truly a hands-off experience in the end.

In 2012, most teens said their favorite way to communicate with friends was "in person." In 2018, most teens said they liked texting best (35%), according to Common Sense, a children's and media advocacy organization. Less than one third in 2018 said they prefer chatting with friends face-to-face.

We already knew that, right? 

Here's the issue: Families often don't believe they need to communicate with the admission office or build a deep relationship with their admission counselor. In fact, I don't think it even occurs to them, or more likely, they don't have the time to develop a relationship. Result: The admission counselor seems like a piece of furniture.  

I badly wanted to build relationships with students. I wanted to talk to them, hear their stories. While I managed hundreds of applicants, the ones who stood out were the handful of students who reached out to me. The students who knew our admission counselors scored an advantage, there's no doubt about it -- they gained access to more opportunities.

Imagine this: Your family hits it off with an admission counselor, and later on, that admission counselor has a conversation with a science professor who happens to mention, "I need a student assistant in my introductory chemistry class this semester." 

The admission counselor may say, "I happen to know a student! I just met him and he'd be fantastic!"

This actually happened, and my student secured an excellent work-study job. This also led to a professional relationship that has lasted to this day -- the student has since left graduate school (on the professor's recommendation) and is in the workforce!

My favorite students received the best hints on how to choose the right residence hall, introductions to alumni, even meetings with the president. I even recommended students I knew for an independent scholarship that the professors were giving away. 

Does this always mean that your students will gain additional access to more financial aid? No. Not necessarily. However, I still suggest that the families you work with build a relationship with admission counselors or admission offices of the schools they're interested in, you may gain access to certain advantages.


Posted in College Admissions Criteria.


Here's what we have:
DIRECT STUDENT LOANS (subsidized/unsubsidized): 4.993%
  • 2021-2022 Rate was 3.734%
  • 2020-2021 Rate was 2.75%

  • 2021-2022 Rate was 5.284%
  • 2020-2021 Rate was 4.30%

PLUS - for Parents and Graduate Students: 7.543%
  • 2021-2022 Rate was 6.284%
  • 2020-2021 Rate was 5.30% 

For the update NCAG wishes to thank Stuart Siegel (Idaho) one of our most tenured members, and owner of

Posted in Financial Aid.

FSA Conference Report: Second Report

Keynote: Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, FAFSA Simplification Federal Update and the Clery Act

[Summarized by NCAG Blog Editor, Melissa Brock;]
You work in extraordinary times. You're on the front lines, helping students profoundly affected by the pandemic while navigating its challenges yourselves. 

With heart and creativity, you've adapted to the needs of your campus communities. You've ensured that students enrolled at your institutions have been supported through federal student aid programs as well as through emergency grant aid. 

"The Biden-Harris administration understands your crucial role in helping America's students reach and achieve their college dreams," Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, said. "We're proud to be your partners in working to build a more equitable and higher-performing postsecondary education system. President Biden is committed to supporting institutions of higher education and we're doubling down on our commitment," he added.

Here are three significant challenges the president and Cardona are prioritizing: 
  1. Ensuring an equitable recovery for students and colleges. 
  2. Pushing for historic investments that will make college more affordable.
  3. Helping colleges fully commit to equity. 

More must be done to recover from the damage caused by COVID-19. Students are struggling with mental health challenges, housing and food insecurity and academic gaps. The federal government has provided billions in American Rescue Plan funds to help students and their schools through this difficult time. 

The administration is investing in community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, tribally controlled colleges and universities, other minority-serving institutions like Hispanic-serving institutions and other inclusive institutions that provide equitable opportunities for graduation, careers and upward mobility. The administration is also working to connect postsecondary students with other services to help them complete their education, like notifying Pell Grant recipients of potential eligibility for nutrition assistance or broadband subsidies. 

Because many students also struggle financially, this administration is also focused on college affordability. 

"I'm proud the President's Build Back Better agenda includes large increases to the Pell Grant program. We're also excited to extend Pell to more students like our Dreamers. These benefits will dramatically offer equitable access to higher education. It'll create a path to success for students of color and those from low-income families and enable many more students to attain the postsecondary credentials needed to enter high-demand careers. Of course, states must also do their part by investing in their institutions," Cardona said.

Cardona said that the costs of college can increase over time for students who borrow to pay for their education. "For too long, the answer to rising college costs has been larger loans. It's unacceptable that student loans could leave students and families worse off than if they had never gone to college. Student loans can also be a major contributor to post-college inequities, including exacerbating the racial wealth gap. This cannot continue," he said.

Cardona says that students and student loan borrowers can depend on the Department of Education for support in repaying their loans and receiving quality servicing. The administration has increased oversight of the student loan program and to date, has canceled over $12.5 billion of debt for nearly 640,000 borrowers across the country. As part of these actions, the administration recently announced improvements to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and put over 500,000 public service workers an average of nearly two years closer to loan forgiveness. 

The administration also delivered loan discharges to borrowers who were victims of fraud, became disabled or were otherwise eligible for loan relief. To emphasize a commitment to oversight, accountability and enforcement, the Federal Student Aid Office of Enforcement is getting a reboot. 

"To truly address the disparities of the student loan program, we all must unapologetically commit to equity. Transforming higher education requires uplifting diversity, equity and inclusion across all facets of our educational system. Education can be the great equalizer if we prioritize, replicate and invest in what works for students. This means identifying and addressing underlying systemic barriers to lead to policies and practice that drive inequitable outcomes," Cardona said. 

One way you as institutional and financial aid leaders can do this is by focusing on students' basic needs. Institutions are using their own funds, HEER funds from the American Rescue Plan and other relief bills to provide mental health support for students. They've also used these funds to eliminate health care fees and started libraries of free and open textbooks to lower the cost of college. 

Several of your institutions, especially those that have the most economically and socially diverse student bodies, have discharged unpaid institutional balances so students can re-enroll or complete their degrees.  

"To emerge from the pandemic even stronger, institutional leaders must embrace long-term change. This means greater investments in evidence-based wraparound services that help students succeed at higher rates. It means evaluating long-standing institutional policies that block retention and completion for our most underserved students, such as enrollment and transcript holds for students with unpaid balances," said Cardona.

Implementing the FAFSA Simplification Act will require major changes to the processes and systems used to award financial aid but will far outweigh the effort, including the increased access to educational opportunity resulting from expansion of the Federal Pell Grant and streamlining of an application process. This has proved to be a barrier for students and families in underserved communities. 

Federal Update: FAFSA Simplification

The federal update of FAFSA simplification breaks down into several areas: a legislative update, FAFSA Simplification Act implementation, Student Aid Index, other FAFSA simplification changes and privacy and data sharing.

Legislative Update

Consolidated Appropriations Act was passed into public law in 2021, which concerned the FUTURE Act and the FAFSA Simplification Act.

  • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​FUTURE Act: Allows the IRS to share data with FSA for increased ease in administering federal student aid programs. 
  • FAFSA Simplification Act: Introduces significant changes to the FAFSA application process, including changes to the FAFSA form and how students and families complete the form and application and eligibility calculation.

FAFSA Simplification Act Implementation

Under the FAFSA Simplification Act, part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the Department of Education must repeal the 150% Direct Subsidized Loan Limit.

The removal of Selective Service and drug conviction requirements for Title IV eligibility will also occur. Male students will not register with the Selective Service before the age of 26 to be eligible for federal student aid and suspension of eligibility for Title IV for drug-related convictions will also occur. In addition, homeless questions will become renewal eligible.

Student Aid Index

Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will change to Student Aid Index (SAI) to determine eligibility for need-based aid. The equation for determining need will look like this: 

  • Need = Cost of Attendance (COA) - Student Aid Index (SAI) - Other Financial Assistance (OFA)
  • The EFC was confusing because it sounded to families that they needed to pay that amount of money for college.

In addition:
  • Income will now mostly be determined by FADDX transfer.

  • Assets will mostly be the same, though child support received will count, and family farms and small businesses are no longer excluded.

  • The SAI can be a negative number, down to -$1,500.

  • Those who are not required to file a return in the base year will get an automatic -1500.

  • Auto-Zero SAI available to those who qualify for a maximum Pell Grant unless they have a negative SAI.

  • Non-tax filers, single parent filers with a 0 < AGI ≤ 225% of poverty line and non-single student or parent with 0 < AGI ≤ 175% of poverty line can get a maximum Pell.

  • Those ineligible for max Pell and with SAI < max Pell: Pell grant = max Pell - SAI unless that is < min Pell (10% of the max), then no Pell.

  • Dependent students can still get minimum Pell if their parent is a single parent whose AGI ≤ 325% of the poverty line and is not a single parent and whose AGI ≤ 275% of the poverty line. 

  • Independent students can still get minimum Pell if they are a single parent whose AGI ≤ 400% of the poverty line, are a parent but not a single parent and AGI ≤ 350% of the poverty line or are not a parent and have an AGI ≤ 275% of the poverty line.

Other FAFSA Simplification Changes

A few more pointers:

  • Dependents of the parent: Under the FSA, it only includes the student plus those who live with and receive more than half support from the parent. 
  • Family size: Family size now refers to the Internal Revenue code and the definition of dependent in section 152 and those who would qualify for the child tax credit under section 24.
  • Provisional independent student: A new status for those students who indicate that they cannot provide parent information on the FAFSA.

Privacy and Data Sharing

According to HEA 483(a)(3)(E), data collected by such electronic versions of the forms may only be used for the application, award and administration of aid awarded under this title, state aid or aid awarded by eligible institutions or such entities that the Secretary may designate. The Simplification Act allows more latitude for sharing FAFSA data.

The Clery Act

The Clery Group enforces the Clery Act, HEA Fire Safety Provisions and the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. The Clery Group conducts program reviews and ongoing monitoring, complaint assessments, media assessments, technical assistance, training and policy support related to campus safety.

The Annual Security Report on each campus must include campus safety and crime prevention policies, procedures, programmatic information and campus crime statistics. It needs to be presented to enrolled and prospective students and current and prospective employees. Each school must have:

  • Timely warning procedures
  • Emergency response and evacuation procedures
  • Drug or alcohol abuse programs

Campus security authority (CSA) members can include: president and school administration, res life, athletic department, victim advocates office, public safety, student life/Greek/student government and Title IX coordinators.

"This is our moment to ensure that all students can fulfill their great potential and thrive. Let's shape an educational environment that enables success for everyone. Together, we got this," Cardona said. 


Posted in College Admissions Criteria.

FSA Conference Report: First Report

FSA Conference Welcome and Federal Updates

Editor's Note: For all NCAG Members who missed the Federal Student Aid Conference in December, this and the next few Blogs are offered.

[Summarized by NCAG Blog Editor, Melissa Brock;]
As those of us who work in higher education can attest, we all want to be able to help families navigate the complexities of paying for college.

Richard Cordray, COO of Federal Student Aid in the United States Department of Education, began the FSA Conference welcome by saying that he believes that everything positive in his life can be traced back to his education: his wife and family, close friends, his career opportunities. He said, "None of it would have been possible without the educational keys in my pocket to unlock those doors." He spent years as a teacher himself and much of his service has overlapped with education policy and practice. 

As the Ohio attorney general, Cordray represented the state's public colleges and the state department of education. As the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), he worked on consumer issues involving student loans, such as developing the paying for college scorecard, tackling abuses by pro-profit schools and trying to improve the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. 

He says that Federal Student Aid (FSA) is at the most consequential moment ever for the financing of higher education. Here's why and how we can work together.

Three Unprecedented FSA Challenges

The FSA faces three unprecedented challenges: 

  1. Overhauling student loan servicing: Overhauling student loan servicing means that the FSA must have brand new performance and accountability standards and transfer approximately 15 million accounts between servicers. 
  2. PSLF program changes: The PSLF program will execute on momentous changes in the PSLF program, which will lead to a huge expansion in the number of loans discharged for public service workers.
  3. Return to repayment: The FSA will also navigate the return to repayment for tens of millions of student loan borrowers, whose payments have been suspended during the pandemic for almost two years now.

The Federal Student Aid programs are also facing an array of changes. These range from a constant process of evolution and FSA's own operational approach to new legislative measures. 

FSA's modernization efforts:

Updating information technology and front-end systems is essential. Customers and partners need to be able to rely on its infrastructure. 

Customer and school partner experience:

On the customer experience side, FSA has unveiled a set of improvements under what it calls the Next Generation Digital and Customer Care, or Next Gen DCC. This started with an overhaul of public-facing products, such as the FAFSA form, the website and the myStudentAid mobile app. They've introduced improved tools like Loan Simulator, the Aidan virtual assistant, the PSLF Help Tool and the new Federal Student Aid Estimator. These innovations enhance the customer experience to foster greater awareness of financial aid from start to finish. 

Rethinking the Customer Experience

In addition to these new and improved resources to improve customer experience, FSA is rethinking its approach to borrower complaints and feedback. FSA is doing it on the front end through a feedback center and through streamlined reporting processes and organizational realignment. 

The FSA Ombudsman and her group reports directly to Cordray, which underscores a commitment to resolving concerns that customers bring to FSA's attention. Everyone (including you!) needs to join in these efforts and collaborate to identify customer problems. 

Modernizing Digital Platforms

FSA Partner Connect represents a major investment in working closely with you to maintain responsible stewardship of the Title IV programs. It has streamlined disparate websites and features into one website, which provides an integrated modernized digital platform to make your jobs easier so you can focus on serving students. 

Partner Connect includes the Knowledge Center, the Federal Student Aid Handbook, personalized dashboards, a student view and more. The current version of Partner Connect reflects the input from you and other stakeholders to identify pain points and areas of improvement, including through the partner experience council. 

The FSA acted on your invaluable feedback and your engagement so far is impressive. More than 600,000 users have logged over 1.7 million sessions on Partner Connect. FSA will continue to deliver new and enhanced features moving forward. FSA welcomes your feedback about how the website is working and how to improve it. 

The National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) website, with its massive repository of Title IV-related data, will move into a secure cloud environment. Among other things, this investment will enable FSA to improve the user interface and leverage real-time data. 

FSA is committed to implementing rigorous safeguards to protect student data but FSA needs your help as well. 

The hackers, fraudsters and scammers energetically pursue their malicious ends. We need to communicate with one another to outpace them and be better prepared to mitigate future cyber incidents. 

In September, Cordray's team presented its most requested conference session, the federal update, as a live webinar and is available on the FSA training site at Other popular topics, such as the return of Title IV and verification, will also be presented this way. 

FUTURE Act and FAFSA Simplification Act

The 2019 FUTURE Act and FAFSA Simplification Act represent a complete overhaul of how everyone delivers federal student aid and how the process works for the approximately 19 million students and families who fill out the FAFSA form each year. The scope of the changes and scale of the work means that activating these new laws is quite complex. 


The FUTURE Act authorizes FSA to engage in data matching with the IRS to streamline the process of FAFSA verification, which we know is challenging for many families and many school officials. During the pandemic, the FSA has been rethinking how it handles the verification process and this remains a work in progress. There's value in automated data sharing that will reduce the burdens of manual verification at the level of individual schools to help ensure that FAFSA forms are filed correctly. It's important to root out the potential for fraud without making the process so oppressive that it reduces student participation and burdens school officials who could be doing other useful things. 

FAFSA Simplification Act

The FAFSA Simplification Act is an overlapping challenge. The process by which the federal government delivers more than $115 billion in federal student aid each year is due for a refresh. Congress recognized that in passing this new legislation. Most notably, it will reduce the complexity of the form, dramatically reducing the number of data fields that must be completed. FSA needs to replace a computer mainframe system that is 45 years old that runs on antiquated processing and uses the COBOL computer language. People have "nursed" the old system along for many years, but it's time for a change. They're committed to moving as quickly as possible but not at the expense of thorough and successful implementation. 

FSA has started the process to repeal the Subsidized Usage Limit Applied at calculation, known as SULA, which has the effect of expanding access to subsidized loans and relieving some administrative burden on you and your schools. 

In addition, FSA has provided guidance for removing consequences associated with drug convictions or failure to register with the Selective Service System on the FAFSA. Changes of this magnitude take time, and they will be careful to get them right. The top priority is making sure students and their families have reliable and uninterrupted access to the financial aid they need to achieve their higher education goals. They will keep everyone apprised of their progress, such as the transition from the expected family contribution (EFC) to the Student Aid Index. 

Enrollment Declines

One last point of concern about the FAFSA process: Thousands of schools have noted the negative effects of the pandemic on enrollment. The U.S. saw a slight decline in 2020, which was understandable enough given the novel challenges everyone was confronting. But now the early data from this year on FAFSA completion suggests that the downward trend is continuing and it is significant. 

FSA has also seen a decline in federal Pell Grant disbursements and widespread enrollment declines at many colleges and universities nationwide, especially at two-year institutions. 

Cordray said, "This is a serious problem for all of us. We cannot afford more cohorts of high school graduates who are somehow failing to move into the next stages of higher education. Our population has a certain amount of potential and education is a key means of realizing that potential and building a stronger America. The issues here are complicated and there are no easy answers to dealing with broader societal phenomena."

He added, "We will be monitoring the data closely to call out the trends we see unfolding in the months and years ahead but we also need your help. If you have ideas about what we at FSA can do to address this problem of declining enrollment, or what you can do, or what is causing the declining numbers, please reach out to us at Push your state officials to change state law so that it mandates FAFSA completion as a requirement for high school graduation. Seven states have done this already. Don't let the young people in your state fall behind. We've developed a how-to kit that you can use to advocate for this change in state law, and we urge you to make it happen."

Two-Way Street

The relationship between institutions and the FSA is a two-way street. 

"I've talked a lot about how we can support all the many schools under our purview, whether they are public or private, for-profit or nonprofit, community colleges, vocational programs and the like with substantial federal aid funding. We intend to be careful stewards of taxpayer money. Our support for schools must be balanced by our responsibility to engage in effective oversight," Cordray added.

FSA has strengthened accountability and performance expectations for student loan servicers, which will benefit students, borrowers and their families. The new servicer contracts include metrics and penalties to make sure that calls are answered in a timely manner and other basic performance standards are met. The same goes also for the schools financed through Federal Student Aid. 

FSA will not tolerate schools that pose risks to students and taxpayers including infractions such as borrower defense to repayment, false certification discharge and closed school discharge. To accomplish this, FSA will work closely with colleagues in the department, with partners such as the Federal Trade Commission, the CFPB, the Department of Justice and Treasury and with state partners. 

FSA is sharing information to team up on the supervision of student loan servicers and schools. This joint oversight is intended to eliminate practices that do not serve students or abuse the trust of taxpayers. The FSA will tailor its oversight of schools to focus on areas of heightened risk, such as situations of rapid growth, financial irregularities, high cohort default rates or spikes in student complaints. 

When FSA suspects that measures are being taken to thwart oversight, such as the conversion of schools from for-profit to nonprofit status or some changes in ownership, FSA will scrutinize these actions very carefully. It will also take pains to share information with you publicly about oversight activities and will make it a point to let all the other schools know what they need to avoid if they're to remain in compliance with the law. 

Student Loan Forgiveness

Student loan forgiveness falls into three different but related topics: general loan forgiveness, targeted loan forgiveness programs and return to repayment.

"Many people have a great deal to say [about general loan forgiveness], but as the chief of FSA, I do not. Instead, it is a decision for the White House to make. Whatever they decide, FSA will faithfully implement," Cordray said.

Target Loan Forgiveness Programs

Targeted loan forgiveness programs are a different matter altogether. 

"We are deeply involved in several areas here. During the summer, the department announced more than $5.8 billion of total and permanent disability discharges would be granted to several hundred thousand borrowers with a data match with the Social Security Administration. We are working to make that happen. The department has also announced multiple rounds of borrower defense discharges for students who have been victimized by failed for-profit schools and we're executing on those discharges as well. Recently, the department announced dramatic changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. As you know, PSLF has been a hot topic in recent years and a source of frustration for many borrowers," said Cordray.

PSLF will reach a broader audience of qualified borrowers, most notably, Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program borrowers who had previously not received any credit for years of payments made on these loans. The goal is to deliver on the core promise of full loan forgiveness to public servants, service members, teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters and others. More people will see their loans move forward to that magic 10-year mark to discharge their loans.

FSA is hard at work to carry all this out. With all of these opportunities for student loan relief, FSA asks for your help in spreading the word. Visit for the latest news. 

Return to Repayment

"This is the most pressing issue we face right now. Tens of millions of student loan borrowers have had their loan payments suspended by the pandemic. Most have made no payments since March 2020," said Cordray.

After multiple extensions of the payment pause, the final date to return to repayment has been reset for May 1, 2022. FSA plans to support borrowers and their families with clear communication with an emphasis on execution by student loan borrowers. 

FSA will: 

Execute a communications campaign that includes a series of email communications that will go directly to borrowers.

  • Offer general awareness messaging on various forms of social media. 

  • Send out paid search ads, which will advertise federal student loan resources and information within the results of internet search engines and work with groups of all kinds, community groups, alumni associations, labor unions, professional organizations. 

FSA is informing borrowers about their options, such as signing up or renewing their enrollment in our auto-debit program which is the easiest way to make their monthly payments. FSA is also encouraging borrowers to apply for income-driven repayment plans if they need help making their monthly payments more affordable. 

The FSA cannot do this alone, Cordray said. "We need strong partners like you to be effective. You did not want to see your cohort default rates spike because borrowers are confused or reluctant to start repaying the loans again, some of them for the first time ever. It is not a positive for any borrower to slip into delinquency and then default, regardless of the reasons. We need all of you to help people get this right." 

Finally, he added that there's nothing abstract about the challenges we face. 

"We share the goal of helping more young people seize the same opportunities to learn and grow and flourish. We can change the trajectory of their lives by helping them realize fulfilling and productive careers. If we can do that, we also will strengthen the capacity of American society to meet the global challenges that we face today and in the coming years. As each student succeeds, we all succeed. This idea is ingrained in the mission of FSA, which is at its core to enable the American dream, so that is what we must aim to do together."

Federal Update

The federal update as part of the 2021 FSA Conference included several "legs," including negotiated rulemaking topics, policy updates, statutory changes, distance education and innovation regulations, COVID-19 relief for student borrowers and operational updates and reminders.

Negotiated Rulemaking Topics

Generally, negotiated rulemaking topics include affordability of postsecondary education, institutional accountability and federal student loans, with the following topics:

  • Changes of institutional ownership

  • Certification procedures for participation in Title IV programs

  • Administrative capability

  • Ability to benefit

  • Borrower defense

  • Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) loan discharge

  • Closed school loan discharges

  • Loan repayment plans

  • Loan discharges for false certification of student eligibility

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

  • Mandatory pre-dispute arbitration and prohibition of class-action lawsuits provisions in institutions' enrollment agreements and associated counseling

  • Financial responsibility

  • Gainful employment

  • Pell Grant eligibility for prison education programs

  • 90/10

Policy Updates

Policy updates include:

  • GEN-21-02: Professional Judgment Guidelines: Provides financial aid administrators with the authority to use professional judgment on a case-by-case basis to adjust the cost of attendance or the values of the data elements used in calculating the expected family contribution (EFC) to reflect a student's special circumstances.

  • GEN-21-07: Audit Supplemental Schedule: Must include a Financial Responsibility Supplemental Schedule as part of any audited financial statements submitted to the Department of Education on or after July 1, 2020.

  • GEN-21-08: Name, Image and Likeness: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced an interim policy effective July 1, 2021 that allows student athletes to receive remuneration for the use of their name, image and likeness.

  • GEN-21-05: Verification Waiver: Relief from all verification requirements for the 2021-22 award year, except for Identity/Statement of Educational Purpose and High School Completion Status under Verification Tracking Groups V4 and V5.

  • GEN-21-05: Verification Changes: Removed high school completion status as a verification item under the V4 and V5 tracking groups starting with the 2022-2023 FAFSA processing year. 

Statutory Changes

Statutory changes include the following:
Fostering Undergraduate Talent and Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act: The FUTURE Act authorizes direct data exchange with the IRS through the FAFSA, income-driven loan repayment plans and total and permanent disability (TPD) loan discharges. 

  • Consolidated Appropriations Act: This act included the FAFSA Simplification Act, which will significantly alter the need analysis formula and full implementation requires a broad redesign and overhaul of department's systems. 

Distance Education and Innovation Regulations

Allowed students at eligible foreign institutions to complete up to 25% of an eligible program at an eligible U.S. institution and added additional flexibility in demonstrating a reasonable relationship between length of the program and licensure requirements.

COVID-19 Relief for Student Borrowers

  • Limited Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Waiver: For a limited period of time, borrowers can receive credit for past payments made on loans that would not otherwise qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Past payments on any repayment plan (not just income-driven repayment plans) will count toward loan forgiveness. Past ineligible loan payments (due to incorrect repayment plans or ineligible loans) may count toward 120 total payments.

  • Return to repayment four-part plan: To achieve a smooth transition that minimizes errors or borrower impacts due to confusion, lack of awareness or a change in life circumstances, FSA plans to provide outreach and support to borrowers to ensure that they have information and resources necessary to help them manage their repayment obligations. The goal is to minimize borrower delinquency and maximize a successful repayment experience. 

    • Communications will be proactive, continuous and targeted and ongoing effort combines FSA and loan servicer resources to reach borrowers with the right message at the right time. 

    • Reducing delinquency: Enterprise approach to reducing delinquency.

    • Meet customer service expectations: Continue proactive communications to drive early engagement and establish call center performance levels. 

    • Monitoring and oversight: Multiple layers of monitoring, oversight and inspection: Robust reporting requirements along with operational monitoring/analysis and risk analysis.

Operational Updates and Reminders

The federal update ended with specific operational updates and reminders, including the following information: 


Title IV Program Appropriations Difference from 2020: 

  • Federal Pell Grant: +$2.1 billion

  • Maximum Pell Grant: +$150

  • FSEOG: +$15 million

  • Federal work-study: +$10 million


Operational updates also included federal loan origination fee changes, unemployment benefits under the American Rescue Plan, possible inaccurate reporting of AGI for some applicants and parents who used the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), reporting an AGI of $1. 


In addition, designated entities were also discussed that could use FAFSA data for a specific non-Title IV purpose: U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Federal Communication Commission for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for individuals to purchase health insurance through the Marketplace, the U.S. Department of Labor for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program and the U.S. Department of the Treasury for the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and economic impact payments.


Holiday Self Care Tips for IECs

Editor's Note: Meant to get this out a week ago! Guess I need to read it -- right?!

10 Self Care Tips During the Holidays for IECs: How to Make the Most of Thanksgiving Through New Year's 

[by NCAG Blog Editor, Melissa Brock;]
Now that you've put away the last of the pecan pie (let's be clear -- into your belly, not into the refrigerator), it's time to consider whether you're actually taking care of yourself during this crazy (and soon to get crazier) time. Be honest. From the beginning of the pandemic till now, have you done all you can to take care of yourself?


A Vagaro and OnePoll survey found that more than seven in 10 Americans (73%) were more conscious of requiring self-care in 2020. By the end of 2020, 69% of the 2,000 survey respondents planned to do more self-care in 2021 than in the previous year. In addition, a total of 67% of respondents believed they'd continue their personal self-care routines after COVID-19. 


Which routines did Americans engage in? A total of 47% did at-home spa rituals, 41% went to an actual spa, 36% got a manicure or pedicure and 34% got a haircut. Respondents over 56 (47%) said that outdoor exercise was their  preferred choice of self-care.


What is your method of self-care, and how do you plan to make the most of Thanksgiving through New Year's? Let's walk through some tips for self care during the holidays.

Tip 1: Pencil in time for yourself.

You may experience a lot of extra social activities, office commitments, additional activities with your kids and more. You may not think you have a lot of time to practice self care, but it's really important to take a breather every now and then, even if you are an extrovert.  


Consider deep-breathing techniques or taking time to do a quiet activity like meditation, yoga or reading. Depending on your particular needs, you may need just a half hour or a couple hours of quiet time to rest and recharge.


Here are a few other quiet time activities you might want to consider trying: 

  • Journaling

  • Writing

  • Crossword puzzles

  • Sudoku

  • Word games

  • Knitting or sewing

Tip 2: Watch your spending.

Even if shopping is your stress reliever, debt most certainly does not provide a lot of stress relief. In fact, it magnifies stress to the max. And yet, people still go into debt over holiday shopping. 


A December 2020 Magnify Money survey found that 31% of all consumers added debt to their mental load in order to pay for holiday expenses, including spending on gifts, travel and entertainment. Consumers spent about $1,381, an increase of nearly $400 since 2015.


You may want to steer clear of the Joneses so you don't compound your debt problems. Actually, it's not that you have to steer clear of the Joneses altogether, you just have to remember that just because Mr. and Mrs. Smith next door got a new Expedition for Christmas, it doesn't mean that you need to as well, particularly if it doesn't fit into your budget.


Nobody cares if they get one less present from you compared to last year -- remember that. 

Tip 3: Evaluate your feelings.

It's common to feel sadness and loss acutely during the holidays. If you have lost a loved one, you may feel overwhelmed by your emotions, particularly when you realize that a loved one will not be sitting at the same place at the table or that you don't have to buy presents for someone who recently died.


You may feel tempted to dismiss your emotions or they may overwhelm you completely. 


Even if you haven't lost anyone, there's a biological reason you may feel sadder during the winter. You may experience Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) that occurs with the change of the seasons or Seasonal Affective Disorder, which usually begins in late fall and can continue until spring. Individuals who don't normally struggle with depression can also have issues due to a lack of natural light and changes in the body's neurochemical balance.


Understand the signals that tell you when you feel overwhelmed. Doing so can help you recognize when you're not feeling "quite right." It may involve exiting a conversation graciously or leaving work early for the day.

Tip 4: Create a healthy work-life balance.

Independent educational consultants, financial aid professionals and others often have trouble balancing work and personal life due to the nature of their profession. (Many families meet after work and school hours!) However, a healthy balance makes for the best mental health. 


Establish your office hours and put parameters on what you expect to achieve in your business during the holidays. Then stick to those parameters! Of course, you'll always have the odd client who needs to meet at a really weird time, like 9 p.m., but don't allow too many incidents like that to get you bogged down.

Tip 5: Be aware of how others affect you.

We're wired to be with other people, but it's important to understand that certain people may take an emotional toll on you. Engage with people that offer positive vibes all the time, especially during the holidays. You can do this by surrounding yourself with supportive friends, family members and neighbors. Make meaningful connections at all times. Tell yourself that you don't have time for people who don't keep your best interests in mind at all times. Life's too short for toxic people. 

Tip 6: Stay in the here and now.

It's easy to reflect on the past -- the "should have dones" and the "could have dones" may threaten to overwhelm you. Whether you learned that your business didn't perform the way you wanted it to this year, you feared for your personal or professional relationships or something else, focus on what's going on around you. Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the season. Light a candle, cozy up by the fire in a soft blanket and listen to holiday music.


You may also want to consider how you can experience closure. Is there something that you've carried with you that you need to let go of? For example, let's say you seriously regret hiring a friend into your business because you had to later fire her because she took advantage of your friendship. It may hang over your head, particularly if she happened to be going through a tough time financially. It might be time to let these things go.

Tip 7: Exercise daily. 

Ugh, the dreaded gym. Yes, even if it's not your favorite place, don't skip exercise because you think you're too busy during the holiday season. Exercising releases endorphins which may help you handle seasonal stress. After 30 minutes at the gym, you may be able to reprioritize, refocus and realize that you know the exact answer to your problem later on.

Tip 8: Practice gratitude.

On the tails of Thanksgiving, you might have already spent some time thinking about what you're grateful for. Whether you're grateful for your health, your family, your friends, your business -- and those are all great things! -- consider writing them down and reflecting on them daily. This practice can be really great for the soul and can help you hone in on what's really important in your life. 

Tip 9: Put aside your goals -- for now. 

You might be tempted to self-reflect right now. Instead, give yourself some grace. Your personal growth journey can take a hike for right now because the hubbub of the season can take over. Give yourself permission to ignore your imperfections, your "whoops" moments, your messy desk and office and more. Skip the resolutions until the new year. Give yourself ample time to enjoy the holiday season. 

Tip 10: Make time for things you love.

Finally, make plenty of time for things you love to do. If you're struggling to identify some leisure activities or hobbies you love, it might be an indication that you work a lot (or that you love your work -- a great thing!) Take some time to identify the hobbies that are crucial to your well-being. From skiing to reading poetry, you might actively choose to do a number of things on a regular basis, just because they make you feel great.

Get in the Mode of Self Care This Holiday Season

Don't feel like you have time to do any of this? It's easy to say, but try to make time for it all. 


One more thing: Don't always assume that you now have full control over how the holidays go after you tick all the boxes on these things. Take a moment to think about what you can manage and what you need to let go of.


Also, three other crucial elements: eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep and spend time laughing. Steer clear of what causes you stress as much as you can. Everyone else is under stress, so if you can be a balm to others with your mannerisms or calmness. 


Finally, don't discount how much you can do within five or 10 minutes to make you feel good. 


Elusive Affordability and The Ohio State University

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a Guest Blog, and does not necessarily represent the views of NCAG,INC (formerly National College Advocacy Group), the administration and membership of the same. NCAG Members are invited to share their Blogs, and to respond to all published Blogs. Civil responses and Blogs will be published. The intention in this space is to create dialogue, and to publish information helpful to college admissions and financial aid professionals.

The Headline Fired Me Up!

By George Gately, IEC, CCA
Mooresville, NC

"A chance to graduate in four years, debt-free" that was the headline and it caught my eye. The story is about an initiative at The Ohio State University (my Buckeye friends have taught me the THE is
de rigueur). Here's the link read the story; or copy & paste the URL into your browser. Forgive me, but the initiative and the glowing news account are marketing, not reform. Let me give you my blow-by-blow.

  1. A chance to graduate in four years, debt-free that exists now. The cost of education is one factor, but the main contributors to student debt ( are change of major and transferring colleges. In other words, IEC's are more important to a four-year degree than is OSU's initiative.
  2. The initiative "includes a combination of increased scholarships, grants and paid internships." I am all in favor of students working their way through college. I did, and my total education debt was $1,000, paid off at $10 per month, over ten years a nuisance but not a burden. If more scholarships and grants are possible now, why hasn't the school done that earlier? Oh, the answer is in the next paragraph:
  3. "The university plans an $800 million fundraising campaign to help cover" the costs of the initiative. No belt-tightening (none mentioned) is planned. OSU is asking others to pay them to educate someone's else's children. There is the education! "OPM" means "other people's money," and it is a mantra in the business world.
  4. That brings me to ​​​​​College is BIG business really big! Buyer beware. Parents are the customers. Colleges sell higher education services. Faculty and administration are paid well above average for that. 
  5. "Students or their families must fill out financial forms each year." There you go. Many low-income students are already going debt-free. Affluent families hiring me express no concern for the costs of their child's education. It is the middle class the $80,000-$150,000 AGI families; most of whom are both parents working.
  6. OSU reports a 68% admit rate; with ACT scores ranging from 26-32. So, a student must first cross the admissions threshold. BUT and hold onto your hat The Ohio State University lists five campuses, four of which have open admissions policies. That is, you apply, you go. The main campus reports nearly 47,000 undergraduates enrolled. The other four are very small.

"George," you're thinking, "aren't you being just a bit cynical?" Cynical, no; skeptical of colleges really reversing course to make a bachelor's degree affordable? Absolutely!

My conclusion is that, the more colleges toot the horn of their nobility, the more America's families need IECs who are tone deaf.

FAFSA Changes: Now and To Come

Changes to FAFSA 2021: What You Need to Know

[Summarized by NCAG Blog Editor, Melissa Brock;]
You've probably already heard that the FAFSA will undergo a makeover. But what does that mean?


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will finally become simpler to fill out and improve the quick delivery of student financial aid. It comes with a few other changes as well. 


However, note that most of the changes won't go into effect until the Oct. 1, 2022 FAFSA becomes available, but you'll find some FAFSA changes in 2021. 


How will these changes affect families? Let's go over what you need to know.

Why Changes Were Needed

As an independent educational consultant, you've probably encountered a few families who have balked at the idea of filing the FAFSA for any number of reasons. As a former admission counselor, I heard this a lot: "We won't qualify for anything because our income is too high."


That's certainly one of the reasons, according to a National Center for Education Statistics study, which showed why many students opted to not fill out the FAFSA. Of course, students who don't file it automatically eliminate themselves from receiving federal aid and possibly institutional aid.


Among fall 2009 ninth graders who graduated from high school, approximately 65% of students reported completing the FAFSA. On the other hand, 24% did not complete it.


Those who did not file cited the following reasons:

  • 33% thought they could afford school or college without financial aid.

  • 32% thought they may not qualify for financial aid.

  • 28% did not want to take on debt.

  • 23% said they didn't have enough information at their disposal about how to complete the FAFSA.

  • 22% did not plan to continue education after high school.

  • 15% did not know they could complete a FAFSA.

  • 9% thought the FAFSA forms would take too much time or were too much work.

FAFSA and Government Aid History Lesson

As an independent educational consultant, you know that colleges use FAFSA information to determine federal aid eligibility for items such as federal grants and loans. Colleges also use specific information from the FAFSA to award institutional aid. But do you know how some of these changes to the FAFSA and other government financial aid mandates have evolved over the course of history? Let's take a look.

  • 1965: President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law and solidified the U.S. federal government as the primary provider of financial aid. A portion of the Act established the Educational Opportunity Grant (EOG) Program, which allocated funds directly to colleges. 

  • 1972: The EOG program became both the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program, which delivered funds directly to colleges, and the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (BEOG) program -- the early version of the Pell Grant, which delivered funds directly to students.

  • 1978: The Middle Income Student Assistance Act of 1978 opened eligibility for subsidized loans to all undergraduates, regardless of whether they demonstrated need or not. Pell Grants could also then go to middle-income students. 

  • 1980: The Pell Grant became available to part-time students and students at vocational or community colleges. 

  • 1990s: The following were established: PLUS Loans, the Hope and Lifetime Learning tax credits and Unsubsidized Stafford Loans. PLUS loans also became available to the parents of all college students, regardless of demonstrated need. They allowed parents to borrow up to the full cost of attendance.

  • 2011: Institutions were required to post a Net Price Calculator on their websites to show more cost transparency at each college.

  • 2017: The FAFSA is made available to the public on October 1 every year for the future academic year. 

  • 2021: The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 shortened the FAFSA from 108 questions to 36 to encourage more eligible students to fill out the form.

Overall Changes to the FAFSA

Let's take a closer look at all the changes that will occur.

Change 1: The FAFSA will shorten.

The FAFSA currently contains 108 questions, which can seem like a daunting task to families All students must fill out the FAFSA in order to qualify for federal, state and institutional financial aid, including federal student loans, grants and work-study. The form currently includes 108 questions and will go down to 36 questions.


Families' income information reporting will change. Currently, families must access the data themselves using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This new method replaces the Central Processing System (CPS) and uses a new interface to receive federal tax information directly from the IRS. That reduces the number of questions required for families to self-report income. 


Students also will no longer have to answer whether they have had any drug-related convictions, meaning drug offenses will no longer bar students from getting federal financial aid.

Change 2: ​​The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will go away.

You'll be able to axe the letters "EFC" from your vocabulary. The term, which refers to an index number that colleges use to determine family eligibility for financial aid, has long been confusing to families. You may have experienced families that assume that EFC meant that they'd either have to pay the EFC amount for college or that their students would receive the EFC amount in aid. 


Here's the new term you'll use: Student Aid Index (SAI), and you'll also experience a change in the methodology used to determine aid. The new formula removes the number of family members in college from the calculation (though some families may not be happy about this change) and allows a minimum SAI of -$1,500.

Change 3: Federal Pell Grants will expand.

The FAFSA Simplification Act will allow more students to receive Federal Pell Grants. It'll link eligibility to family size and will also base it off of the federal poverty level.


Incarcerated students participating in prison education programs will regain the ability to receive a Federal Pell Grant. Students who had a drug-related conviction in the past can also qualify. Eligibility will also encompass students whose school closed while they were enrolled and for students who found out that their schools misled them.


For the 2020-21 school year, the maximum Pell Grant is $6,345 per student; it will rise to $6,495 per student for 2021-2022.

Change 4: Federal Direct Loan program length will increase.

A change in Federal Direct Loans will repeal the lifetime limit on the period for which a borrower can receive subsidized loans of up to 150% of the length of their education program, often referred to as Subsidized Usage Limit Applies (SULA).


For example, right now, if a student attends a four-year program, that student can only receive direct subsidized loans for a total of six years. With this change, students can get subsidized loans for as long as it takes to complete their education program.

Change 5: Unemployment during a national emergency can change eligibility.

Under the new changes, colleges can take unemployment and a national emergency together into account. It allows financial aid administrators to exercise professional judgment in adjusting student, parent or spousal income when determining the student's eligibility for aid. Students can show evidence of receiving unemployment benefits to get their income adjusted to zero, for example.

FAFSA Changes for 2021

The FAFSA opens October 1, and you might wonder whether anything has changed for 2021.


The short answer: Yes. 


The changes based on the FAFSA Simplification Act for this year includes: 

  • Repeal of the Subsidized Usage Limit Applies (SULA) requirements, which limits the number of academic years a student may receive Direct Subsidized Loans. This time limit does not apply to Direct Unsubsidized Loans or Direct PLUS Loans.

  • Negative consequences associated with an affirmative response to the drug conviction question on the FAFSA form will no longer apply.

  • Male students will no longer have to register with the Selective Service System in order to receive federal financial aid.

How You Can Prepare Families

The FAFSA Simplification Act requires changes to most aspects of the processes and systems used to award federal student aid. 


You can prepare families by learning as much about the new FAFSA changes as possible. Help families fill out the FAFSA this year so you can get a sense of these new changes. More changes will come next year, so you may not see a huge difference quite yet.


Also, divorced families who file the FAFSA will notice a change, particularly if they've filed the FAFSA before. In the past, the parent with the highest adjusted gross income (AGI) had to file the FAFSA when custody was split 50/50. However, under the new legislation, the parent who offers the most financial support will complete the FAFSA.


Stay tuned for more information about FAFSA changes and admission updates through NCAG's blog. We'll continue to be a trusted resource for you as you navigate future FAFSA and federal changes.


College Applications -- What Matters to Colleges

BYLINE: Cincinnati
AUTHOR: Lisa Marker-Robbins

When Ohio's largest high school, William Mason High School (Mason), dropped the honors of valedictorian and salutatorian as well as overhauled its GPA system, we heard an uproar across all forms of social media. Accusations flew of MHS "going soft."

I was surprised by the outcry, because this is far from the first high school to make either move. Perhaps the responses were due to citing students' mental health as a factor in dropping the honors.

As I pondered this and perused both positive and negative responses, my first thought as an independent college counselor was this: Most really don't understand how colleges view GPA when considering an applicant. 

How Do High Schools Approach GPA?

There's no standardized high school GPA in the United States. If you survey five different high schools, you will likely find five different options, including some of the following:

  • No weighting for honors, AP or College Credit Plus classes
  • Weighted grades for rigorous coursework with the weight being different from high school to high school
  • Seven-point or 10-point grading scales or other variations
  • Include or exclude pluses or minuses
  • Percentage scale instead of the point system
  • Weighted, unweighted or both on transcripts

With so many variations, it's easy to see how comparing GPAs is like comparing apples to oranges. The generally accepted scale for colleges is 4.0, which allows for a more fair comparison of students.

How Do Colleges Approach GPA?

In order to get to a more apples-to-apples approach, few colleges look at simply the GPA when assessing grades, the No. 1 "getting in" factor. The grade analysis methods behind closed admissions office doors include the following:

  • Looking closely at rigor (not just GPA): College admission offices take into consideration which classes a student has taken and grades earned. Colleges want to see that students appropriately challenge themselves with the options offered at the school. Students are not penalized if the school lacks a wide variety of rigorous options. The question is have you taken advantage of what is offered.
  • Recalculating GPA: Colleges often recalculate a weighted GPA back to a 4.0 scale for all applicants.
  • Looking at core subjects: Colleges will often recalculate the GPA (weighted or unweighted) to include only core subjects like English, math, science, social studies and  foreign language.
  • Rigorous coursework: Colleges might also recalculate the GPA to include a standard weight for rigorous coursework.

Does Class Rank Matter?

When a high school does not publish class rank or awards a student the honor of valedictorian or salutatorian, it is not held against the student and is simply not a factor in the admission equation. It is not hurting or helping the student. In my hometown of Greater Cincinnati, it was more than a decade ago that most area schools eliminated publishing class rank; Mason was among them.

While many students think the perfect 36 ACT or taking all AP's or yes, even being valedictorian is a ticket to the Ivy League or similar, they are sadly mistaken. It's been documented in one recent admission cycle that Stanford rejected 69% of applicants with perfect scores, and I assure you the freshman class was not made up of only perfect-scoring students. I once sat in a meeting with a Yale admissions officer who stated 60% of perfect score applicants were not admitted in favor of students with lower scores but a better holistic picture. I can give countless examples of this, including Ben Shumaker from Michigan who was valedictorian among 536 students, yet not admitted to a single Ivy, USC or Case Western.

What Does Matter?

Data and Voice. The vast majority of colleges take a holistic approach to evaluating applicants.  The data is the GPA, course work taken as well as ACT/SAT. But many people forget that voice is an enormous component. Voice is your essays, resume of activities, recommendation letters, and interviews (if offered). For highly selective schools where all of the students have similar high achieving data, the voice is what makes the difference and most notably the resume.

"Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be"

This advice of New Your Times bestselling author Frank Bruni is a great reminder. Be the best you, and if this includes admittance to a coveted Ivy, bravo for you; I will be the first to congratulate you! Regardless, perfect scores, 4.0 GPA's, Valedictorian status don't define you or your future. Just look at the list of Fortune 500 CEOs.