As anyone who has gone through the college application process is painfully aware, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is not only the portal through which students can access Uncle Sam’s $150 billion pot of available grants, loans, and work-study funds, many states, schools, and private scholarships require applicants to first submit the FAFSA to determine how much, if any, financial aid they may offer.
But, could the tiresome, tedious, but oh-so-financially-rewarding exercise of filling out the FAFSA be simplified?
Theoretically, yes. But the real-world answer is a bit complicated.
President Obama, his advisors, and even a handful of the POTUS’ political opponents, think it’s long overdue we make the door to financial aid for college much easier to open. And what’s given the simplify-the-FAFSA idea new life is President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal which asks for $70.7 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Education. The $3.6 billion proposed increase is part of President Obama’s plan to make college affordable and accessible to more students, especially students from low-income families.
- Part of that plan is a three-pronged initiative to simplify the FAFSA form. According to the White House, the Obama Administration is taking three steps to make it easier for students to apply for aid:The online application is being streamlined, with millions of students already using a shorter, simplified form; more improvements are on the way.”
- Starting “in January, some students and parents will be able to electronically retrieve their tax information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and transfer it into the online FAFSA.”
- “Congress is considering the Administration’s proposal to simplify the eligibility formula. This would make it possible to remove 29 of the most difficult FAFSA questions regarding savings and income adjustments that are not available on tax returns.”
Every year, more than 16 million college students and their families complete the FAFSA in which, according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) and the National Economic Council (NEC), “they spend hours answering needlessly complicated and intrusive questions that undermine the fundamental goal of student aid: to help more students attend and graduate from college.”
The case for simplifying the process and an analysis of the potential impacts is laid out in a 2009 report by the CEA and NEC, entitled “Simplifying Student Aid: The Case for An Easier, Faster, and More Accurate FAFSA.” The report noted that the FAFSA form includes 153 questions (now 108). It requires families to report detailed, difficult to understand (and compile) information about income and assets, much of which has little or no impact on student aid eligibility.
“With more than one million students who likely qualify for aid failing to complete an application, it is clear that a central goal of student aid programs – ensuring that college is within the financial reach of all qualified students – is not being met,” the report said.
Furthermore, the report found, FAFSA questions on assets and savings are “complex and largely unverifiable,” providing opportunities for “gamesmanship;” to say nothing of the fact that their inclusion in the financial aid formula penalizes some families who have saved for college expenses.
Why is simplifying the FAFSA complicated?
Besides a GOP-controlled Congress with a penchant for rejecting anything with Obama’s name on it irrespective of the merits, there’s a reason why all those “complicated and intrusive questions” found their way onto the form in the first place – mostly at the insistence of various interest-groups and constituencies; not the least of which are college administrators themselves.
Michael Stratford of Inside Higher Ed reports on a simplified FAFSA, “many colleges and states want to put the brakes on the race to eliminate as many FAFSA questions as possible. Although they support the goal of making it easier for students to apply for aid, they’re concerned that cutting off too many questions from the form would make it harder to determine which students are actually in need of student aid.”
Or, as Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told Stratford: “We have a limited pool of funds, and you’re taking a pool of applicants and trying to figure out the relative financial strengths to each other. The less information you gather, the more everybody looks needy on paper.”
Tell us what you think. Should access to financial aid for college be made simpler? If so, have you contacted your Congressional representatives to let them know?