One representative has accused more than 100 colleges—including Duke—of violating federal law by requiring financial aid applicants to complete extra forms or not making clear which ones are needed.

In a letter addressed to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said 111 colleges are violating the Higher Education Act by requiring students to complete forms other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The letter claims that these additional forms possibly create "improper and unnecessary barriers to federal assistance." Duke, like many other institutions, also requires the College Board's fee-based CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which is intended to be used to assess students’ eligibility for university-based—rather than federal—aid.

“As the son of former sharecroppers, I know firsthand how a college diploma can change a person’s life,” Cummings, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote in an email Tuesday. “Many college applicants and their families find it challenging to navigate the process of applying for financial aid and I want to be sure colleges and universities are providing clear and accurate information.”

According to the letter, Cummings would like schools to explain that the PROFILE is used to calculate financial aid coming from the university and that applicants need only fill out the FAFSA to receive federal aid. The PROFILE is more detailed than the FAFSA and has a $25 fee attached to it. The Oversight Committee believes that schools must inform students which forms are necessary for them to complete.

Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid at Duke, said the Oversight Committee’s letter was misrepresentative of the intent behind requiring additional forms.

"The letter was misleading and did not help clarify what students need to do to apply for aid—all kinds of aid, federal and institutional,” she said.

The letter's list includes many of Duke's peers, including several Ivy League schools and Stanford, Georgetown, Northwestern and Rice universities. The letter reported that 58 schools require applicants to submit the PROFILE in order to receive any type of financial aid—both institutional and federal. The other 53 schools instruct students to submit both the FAFSA and the PROFILE to obtain financial aid, without clarifying what type of aid each form is used to assess.

Duke falls into the latter category. Its financial aid website instructs applicants to fill out the FAFSA, the PROFILE and other tax and income information in order to be considered for aid.

Rabil said that the financial aid office lets students know that if they are only applying for federal funding, they just need to fill out the FAFSA.

The FAFSA provides limited financial information to universities, especially for families who are self-employed or own businesses, Rabil wrote in an email Wednesday. This compels Duke to ask for additional forms to understand students' financial circumstances better.

“We ask for the PROFILE form to get a fuller picture of the financial health of the families applying for scholarship aid from Duke," Rabil said. "We believe it helps us to evaluate a family’s situation more fully.”

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said in a statement that he does not think that colleges are withholding federal aid from students who had not filled out the PROFILE, but he agreed that some of their websites could be clearer.

“A number of institutions have already changed the language on their websites, and we hope that other schools will follow suit,” Cummings said. “My goal is to ensure that schools that utilize any forms other than FAFSA, such as the PROFILE, are in full compliance with the Higher Education Act and are not creating improper and unnecessary barriers to the federal assistance.”

Rabil said Duke does not intend to hinder students from receiving federal aid but instead aims to allow applicants to receive the most aid possible.

“We encourage families to apply for all sources of aid,” Rabil said. “To apply for only federal aid would limit access to all of Duke scholarship funds, which are the vast majority of funds awarded to students on aid at Duke."