In What Order Should I List Colleges on the FAFSA?
In order to access financial aid for college, you can list up to 20 schools on your FAFSA® to receive your family's financial information. Upon receipt of your complete financial aid application, those colleges' financial aid offices will determine your eligibility for any applicable federal, state, and institutional aid aid.
In my role as a college finance educator at Bright Horizons College Coach®, I am often asked if there is a particular order in which order a student should list colleges on the FAFSA in order to maximize financial aid or chances of admission. The good news for students is that, in most cases, it makes absolutely no difference in what order you list your schools: listing from first choice to last, in alphabetical order, or by favorite school color will not change your admissions or financial aid outcomes in any way.
A number of years ago, this was not necessarily the case. Colleges could see the other colleges listed on your FAFSA—and their place on your list—and it came to light that some colleges were drawing inferences from this information that affected some admissions decisions. A high placement was seen as a sign of demonstrated interest in the college and a low placement demonstrated a lack of interest (whether or not this was true for any individual student). In general, colleges like to accept students they expect will actually enroll, and the inferences drawn from the FAFSA order sometimes affected admissions outcomes.
Happily, in response to this information about how FAFSA order was being used by some colleges, the Department of Education removed the ability of colleges to see either their placement or the other colleges listed on your FAFSA. You will still see rumors floating around the internet about the FAFSA order being used in nefarious ways, but this information is very outdated. Colleges today have no ability to see other colleges listed on your FAFSA, nor the order in which they are listed.
Therefore, it usually makes absolutely no difference how you list schools on your FAFSA. There are, however, a handful of states, including Massachusetts, where the order in which you list colleges could make a difference for state financial aid purposes. (For the record, the other states are: Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia).
If you qualify for a MassGrant (the most common form of Massachusetts state aid), that grant will, by default, be disbursed to the first eligible college listed on your FAFSA. Colleges eligible for the MassGrant include all state-approved public and private colleges in Massachusetts that award undergraduate degrees (as well as similar colleges in Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC—localities that share reciprocity agreements with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts).
For administrative ease, therefore, you may wish to list the in-state (or reciprocity-eligible) college you feel you are most likely to attend first on your FAFSA. That will minimize the chances of you having to make any changes later. If, however, you end up attending a different institution, you can update your school choice by logging into your account on the MassAid Student Portal (creating a new account if this is your first time logging in) and updating your enrollment information. So don't worry, you'll still receive any MassGrant that you're eligible to receive no matter the order of your schools. You'll just need to do a little extra legwork if your chosen school is not listed first.
Note that MassGrant amounts can vary by type of institution, so understand that award amounts can change when you update your college choice. In addition, be prepared that your newly selected college may need to adjust your existing financial aid package in order to "make room" for the new state grant, so please make necessary updates as soon as possible to allow time for such adjustments long before tuition bills come due.
To make a long story short, if you don't live in Massachusetts or one of the other seven states listed above, the order in which you list colleges on the FAFSA makes no difference whatsoever—for admissions or financial aid purposes. Massachusetts students: when applying for financial aid, list your in-state schools first, and then don't stress! If you qualify for the MassGrant, you can always change your assumed college choice later.