Will Folsom/Flickr

Be careful when you fill out that financial aid form.

According to a new report by Inside Higher Ed, colleges are “denying admission and perhaps reducing financial aid to students based on a single, non-financial, non-academic question that students submit to the federal government on their applications for student aid.”

Wait, what?

Here’s what’s going on, according to the website:

The FAFSA form, which nearly every student applying for aid fills out, asks students to list the schools they are considering.

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The Department of Education shares that information with the colleges on the list and agencies that help distribute financial aid.

This sounds reasonable, but here’s where it gets tricky:

Schools have reportedly figured out that would-be students tend to list schools in order of preference. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling told Higher Ed that some colleges have decided to pass on admitting students that name them lower on the form.

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The thinking is that the schools have limited spots and they don’t want to waste them on students they think are unlikely to attend.

But that’s problematic. Here’s why:

Students don’t know this goes on and not all students list schools according to their preference.

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While the form does tell students that they may wish to list their first choice first, it doesn’t stress the importance of the choice. And it doesn’t indicate that how students list schools could impact where they’re admitted or how much money they are awarded.

Students also may be considering all of the schools on the list. It’s not right for a financial aid form to essentially eliminate some of their options.

And another thing: there’s the potential for schools to offer smaller aid packages to students who list them high on their FAFSA forms, based on the assumption that if they really want to attend, they may be willing accept less aid.

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The Education Department told Higher Ed that they will review the policy of sharing how students name schools on their FAFSA forms with colleges. The department is “looking to find a way that makes sense for moving ahead,” a spokesman told Fusion on Tuesday.

It’s not exactly clear what that means yet.

One obvious option would be to not send schools the other colleges students name on their forms. Or, as one commenter on the Higher Ed piece noted, they could put them in alphabetical order before distributing the information to schools.

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Of course, these options would take some effort from the department. But at the very least, students need to know this is happening. It might just be paperwork for some people, but it has a very real impact on people pursuing higher education.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.