What Would You Do? Exploring Ethics In FAFSA Data Sharing


NASFAA's Exploring Ethics series aims to open discussion between NASFAA members about how to apply the association's Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct through case studies. 

If you have an ethical situation you'd like us to explore, please email your question to [email protected]. The information you send will be used solely for the purposes of an anonymous case study.

These case studies hinge on member input. If you would like to provide a short, written reaction to a future case study, please email [email protected] to volunteer.

In this study, we examine how to handle intra-institution requests for students' FAFSA data while striving to adhere to NASFAA's Statement of Ethical Principles.

The Ethical Dilemma: FAFSA Data Sharing

As financial aid professionals, Marcy and her team are caretakers of an extremely large and private set of data: information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They know that generally the Higher Education Act requires that FAFSA data be used only for the application, awarding, and administration of financial aid. 

The data often pique the interest of some of her colleagues across campus, who examine how to better serve the institution's students and to stay competitive in the higher education marketplace. When FAFSA data requests come in from coworkers from the development office, for instance, Marcy finds herself in murky ethical territory. Can she fulfill requests for student and parent data? If not, how can she avoid feeling pressure — whether real or perceived — to help her institutional colleagues?

Reactions from the Aid Office

We asked two NASFAA members to weigh in on why this ethical issue is important to address, and how they would handle it in their offices.

Eileen O'Leary, assistant vice president of student financial services, Stonehill College: "It is not unusual for financial aid administrators to be asked to provide information from the FAFSA to other departments on campus. I've been approached many times by well-meaning colleagues who are simply looking for a way to efficiently identify specific populations in order to make their jobs a bit easier.

However, in this case, playing together well in the sandbox does not translate into sharing specific information about a family that was given to us with an expectation of confidentiality.

Of course, colleges typically do research about their student bodies, especially now in the era of big data. Aggregating data in a manner that is not identifiable is not an issue – for instance, providing institutional research with the percentage of FAFSA filers within the freshman class, or tracking the percentage of students who have demonstrated financial need and their aggregate need. This can help an institution plan for future funding requirements.

However, if the development office wants a detailed list of all financial aid applicants whose parents earn more than $150,000, it would not be appropriate, in keeping with NASFAA's ethical principles, or even legal to provide them with this detailed financial information. Their purpose in knowing would be to target donation requests and this is not a legitimate educational interest.

I have found when faced with such requests from well-meaning campus administrators that honesty goes a long way. I have explained to the development office, as well as other offices that felt such information would help them to better do their jobs, that federal statute precludes my sharing with them any information from the FAFSA. I also help them understand that when parents provide this personal financial information, they do so under the assumption that it will be kept confidential and only be used for the purpose for which it was intended. This has proven very effective in allowing me to say 'no' without appearing to be uncooperative or difficult."

Ben Burton, chief financial services officer, Ivy Tech Community College: "Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Potter Stewart is quoted as saying 'Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.'

First, does Marcy have the 'right' or the legal ability to release aggregate information to the institution's development office? In my opinion, yes, she does. Neither FERPA nor HEA prohibit the use/release of aggregate data. It is important, however, for the information to be presented in a capacity that does not allow the identification of information to any specific individual. NASFAA's Ethical Principles require the protection of individual student and parent information. Again, by only providing aggregate data Marcy is fulfilling this requirement.

Second, is providing the data the right thing to do? If the aggregate data will allow the development office to better inform donors of the students' financial need and theoretically raise additional scholarship dollars, then I would support delivering aggregated data to the office. This would help to fulfill the NASFAA Ethical Principle of 'removing financial barriers for those who want to pursue postsecondary education.' Upon receiving a clear understanding of how the information would be used, my office would provide the data."


Protecting private information is a recurring theme in NASFAA's Statement of Ethical Principles, which serve as aspirations for members.

The issue has its own sub-section in the Principles:

"Protect the privacy of financial aid applicants 

  • Ensure that student and parent private information provided to the financial aid office by financial aid applicants is protected in accordance with all state and federal statutes and regulations, including FERPA and the Higher Education Act, Section 483(a)(3)(E) (20 U.S.C. 1090).
  • Protect the information on the FAFSA from inappropriate use by ensuring that this information is only used for the application, award, and administration of aid awarded under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, state aid, or aid awarded by eligible institutions."

It is also mentioned within the aspirational goal to "Manifest the highest level of professional integrity:" "Protect the privacy of individual student financial records."

The Statement of Ethical Principles also pushes NASFAA members to be lawful at all times: 

"Comply with federal and state laws 

  • Adhere to all applicable laws and regulations governing federal, state, and institutional financial aid programs."

How NASFAA Can Help

NASFAA members can use the AskRegs Knowledgebase for help discerning what requests can be lawfully filled, as AskRegs has already addressed some common questions on sharing financial aid information. Members can cite the AskRegs information when responding to requests from colleagues. If you have a question that has not yet been answered, please submit it to the Knowledgebase.

The Upshot 

What did Marcy do? Armed with the statutory reference from the Higher Education Act, she creates a one-pager on sharing FAFSA data so her coworkers across the institution know it is only allowable for the purposes of administering or allocating student aid. Marcy uses the one-pager to solicit a better understanding from the development office as to the data request and what will be done with the data.

The development office responds with a request for family-specific lists of students who have graduated in the last three years by AGI so that it can target those families for additional fundraising. Marcy denies the request, citing chapter and verse of both the Higher Education Act and NASFAA's ethical principles as reasons she cannot deliver family-specific information. 

Marcy suggests that the development office use non-student specific, aggregated data about the percentage and numbers of low-income students the school serves to help bolster fundraising for need-based aid. The development office accepts this data and plans to incorporate it into a future campaign.


Publication Date: 12/17/2014

George J | 8/10/2015 12:46:01 PM

Devil's advocate question: the portion of HEA section 483 that governs schools' use of electronic FAFSA data states that "Data collected by such version of the form shall be used only for the application, award, and administration of aid awarded under this title..." How does that give schools the authority to give even disaggregated, non-personally identifiable data to other offices for other purposes?

Mary S | 1/15/2015 1:27:25 PM

I agree with Theodore M that extracting FAFSA data to predict risk factors is perhaps a more challenging case study. If aggregate data (without personal identifiers) from the FAFSA is used to analyze trends in the hopes of identifying risk factors, is that a violation of the Statement of Ethical Principals? My first reaction to that question is no. But as you consider the question is this a case of using FAFSA data for something than the application, award and administration of student aid? I'd welcome comments.

Theodore M | 1/8/2015 10:48:14 AM

I wish you had chosen a more difficult office and reason. To me development is obvious as that does not help students directly. However, identifying at risk students when one of the factors relates to data from the FAFSA is, to me, much more complicated.

Melissa H | 12/17/2014 10:7:19 AM

Thanks for starting this series! I think it will be a great addition to the NASFAA resources. This is a great topic, it can be difficult to help other offices understand why the release of specific information about FAFSA applicants is prohibited.

Bill K | 12/17/2014 10:3:55 AM

I found this discussion to be very helpful. When I read Eileen's comments I was like, "that is correct thing to do," but then when I read Ben's comments, I re-examined my opinion and realized that as long as you don't give specific individual details, sharing that data would be OK. Thanks for sharing these!!

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