College Board executives join FAFSA effort, raising eyebrows

July 9, 2024
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The dust has yet to settle from this year’s disastrous rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The U.S. Education Department is still fixing glitches, processing aid forms and working to boost completion rates that lag 11 percent behind last year’s. But officials must also turn their attention to next year’s form, which is set to launch in just a few months, and they face more pressure than ever to ensure it arrives on time and ready to use.

For that, they’re bringing in reinforcements.

Last month the department appointed Jeremy Singer, the longtime president of the College Board, to be its first-ever FAFSA executive adviser. He’ll take temporary leave from the nonprofit to lead the form’s rollout for the Office of Federal Student Aid, a move made possible by the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which allows federal agencies and nongovernmental partners to share staff when needed.

“FSA is ensuring it has the talent and capacity needed to continue to improve and implement major priorities, including FAFSA,” an Education Department spokesperson wrote in an email. “Jeremy is working closely with the Department and FSA’s leadership and the FAFSA implementation team to strengthen internal systems and processes, drive innovation, and assess staffing needs.”

Now Singer is bringing a team of College Board executives with him, including Chief Information Officer Jeff Olson, who is also joining through an IPA agreement. Olson’s role will be to “strengthen internal systems and processes and bolster technical capabilities,” according to the spokesperson. The department is also bringing on multiple other “technology solutions experts” from the College Board, the spokesperson said, along with “additional contractor resources.”

It’s been a particularly busy summer for FSA. In addition to FAFSA, officials are grappling with changes to the Biden administration’s student debt relief and income-driven repayment plans, which have been waylaid by the judiciary. The agency’s chief operating officer, Richard Cordray, stepped down last month, leaving its top leadership role vacant; deputy COO Denise Carter is leading the office on an interim basis.

There is near-universal agreement in admissions and financial aid circles that the FSA needs all the help it can get after this year’s fiasco, especially with everything on its regulatory and policy agenda. But its choice of cavalry has prompted mixed reactions and raised questions about the future of the beleaguered agency.

“I’m not trying to disparage the people going over from the College Board … I’m sure they are smart and great and capable, and I hope they are able to help, because Lord knows the department needs it,” said Amy Laitinen, senior director for higher education at the progressive policy think tank New America. “But it is certainly not ideal for the department to be relying on folks from an organization with competing interests.”

Controversial Cavalry

The College Board is best known for owning and administering the SAT and AP exams, among a slate of other educational and assessment products. But the elephant in the room is the College Scholarship Service Profile, its private competitor to the FAFSA.

The CSS Profile is an alternative aid form required by over 300 higher ed institutions, which charges colleges for membership and students for submission. Most Profile schools are wealthier private colleges and large research universities, or enrollment-driven institutions that use it to calculate the optimum level of institutional aid needed to boost yield rates.

Singer’s defenders say his deep familiarity with the Profile is what makes him the best person for the FSA job: he has a decade of experience managing a less popular but still widely used student aid packaging tool, and he and Olson bring a technical know-how that the department appeared to lack during last year’s FAFSA rollout.

But some financial aid professionals and policy experts are worried by the Profile connection. They note that Singer and Olson could return to the College Board next year toting insider knowledge of their main competitor, which could theoretically be used to undermine the FAFSA. They will also likely stay partially on the College Board’s payroll while at FSA, since IPA agreements typically involve cost-sharing between federal and nonfederal partner agencies; the department spokesperson did not answer questions about their specific pay arrangements. College Board has also illegally shared student data with companies like Google and Facebook in the past.

Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, said there are multiple red flags in the College Board’s business history for a federal agency with competing interests and access to so much student information.

“This is a really severe and troubling conflict of interest,” Boeckenstedt said. “There are many organizations that could, and are probably eager to, help the department fix the new FAFSA … I have no faith that the College Board is acting altruistically.”

While Inside Higher Ed has not seen Singer’s or Olson’s contracts (though there is a pending Freedom of Information Act request for them), the department spokesperson wrote in an email that strict measures prevent data and information sharing from federal employees, including contractors.

“While at the Department and after he leaves, Jeremy will be subject to the stringent conflict of interest provisions applicable to all former federal employees,” the spokesperson wrote. “He will not be able to bring back student data or information from the FAFSA or market the College Board or its products using his role at the Department.”

On top of the data-sharing concern, critics also worry that the government’s recruitment of College Board staff could ultimately give the Profile a big marketing boost for new institutional customers who are already receptive after the FAFSA’s disastrous past year.

“I think it is probably very good strategically for the College Board to be able to say, ‘The government had to bring us in to fix their form, why not use ours?’” Laitinen said. “It’s probably not great that [the department] is feeding into that.”

A College Board spokesperson declined to comment when asked about conflicts of interest, instead pointing to a press release praising Singer’s “willingness to serve.”

Reading Tea Leaves

Karen McCarthy, vice president of public policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said she’s heard from some worried members about the unorthodox College Board crossover. But with pressure mounting and little time to waste before the new form’s Oct. 1 deadline, she’s not sure there’s a better alternative.

“We see the potential conflict of interest concerns … and I hope and assume there were [nondisclosure agreements] signed,” she said. “But if you’re bringing in somebody who needs to hit the ground running right away, then someone with experience on the Profile makes a lot of sense.”

McCarthy added that the CSS Profile also had to adjust to the new federal aid calculations and requirements last cycle, and that the College Board seemed to have far fewer issues than the department itself in making the pivot.

“I haven’t seen many complaints about the 2024–25 Profile rollout,” she said. “It’s encouraging that the department recognized the need for outside help … This was a humbling decision for the FSA to make.”

Laitinen said the government’s decision to reach out to the College Board seemed less like a lesson in humility than a display of desperation—and a sign that the agency has some serious soul-searching to do in the wake of this year’s rollout.

“I understand they’re trying to put out a fire. But it raises a question: Why was there a fire in the first place, and why are there no firefighters in-house who can deal with it?” Laitinen said. “FSA has so many employees”—more than 1,400 on staff, according to the agency’s website—“so how is it that they don’t have this expertise available in-house?”

That question is at the center of the controversy around Singer’s hiring. The FSA is facing a reckoning from the FAFSA fallout, starting with a “full-scale review” that the Education Department launched in May. Whatever structural changes emerge could have significant implications for years to come.

The department spokesperson said Singer, Olson and other IPA contractors are stopgaps as they recruit more permanent IT professionals and pursue a “long-term modernization process.” But some skeptics worry that the outsourcing is more than an emergency measure and could exacerbate what they see as the FSA’s overreliance on expensive and error-prone contractors.

“I don’t see this as a shake-up at all; a shake-up would be a long-term plan to plug up the holes and address what’s wrong,” Laitinen said. “It’s a bad look to go to [the College Board], but more than that I think it bodes poorly for whatever beefing up the department is preparing for internally … It is absolutely fodder for folks who want to see less federal funding and more privatization.”

For many financial aid professionals, that’s a problem for another day. Right now, the only criteria for judging Singer and his team will come with the FAFSA launch in October.

“We just want next year to be better,” McCarthy said. “Whoever they need to hire to do that, fine. Anybody.”



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