As calls to simplify the student financial aid process intensify and gain bipartisan support, advocates are hopeful that changes are coming to help more qualified students get through college who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
In the meantime, high schools, community organizations, and the federal government are ramping up efforts to help students fill out the current Free Application for Federal Student Aid—or FAFSA—by using data, working together, and getting creative with outreach events. The extra efforts are needed: Analysts estimate that each year millions of students who might qualify for aid never file the required FAFSA form.
For academically promising students with financial need, such as Caitlin M. Austin, federal, state and institutional aid—along with help accessing it—are critical to making college a reality. Austin and her father sat down with an adviser at a free FAFSA night at a high school in Columbus, Ohio, to complete the form online.
“I don’t think I would have been able to do it correctly on my own,” said Austin, now a freshman at the University of Cincinnati.
Their efforts translated into a Pell Grant and other aid, that along with outside scholarships, knocked down the published price of more than $21,000 in tuition, room, and board to less than $7,000 for her family.
Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to tap into grants, work study, and loans for college. Research links submitting the form to higher college enrollment and persistence. And studies show that personal assistance with the process can boost college graduation rates.
Many experts say money is the key to expanding the number of Americans with college degrees. Just 9 percent of students whose families are in the bottom income quartile get a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to 77 percent of those from top-quartile households, according to the Pell Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.
Many of the students who don’t apply are those most in need of college aid. They are often without parents who have gone to college or are attending schools lacking trained school counselors to guide them.
“A lot of students and families are incredibly confused by what they describe as an overly cumbersome and complex system,” said Lyle McKinney, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Houston. Others incorrectly think their family makes too much money to get any financial assistance or are just not aware of the FAFSA.
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A recent analysis by Mark Kantrowitz, a senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com in Las Vegas, a college financial-planning website, shows that an estimated 2 million students who didn’t file the FAFSA in 2011-12 would have qualified for Pell Grants totaling as much as $9.5 billion.
States, Feds Team Up
The current push to increase applications is a collaborative effort, said Kim Cook, the executive director of the National College Access Network, a Washington nonprofit that has seen an uptick in demand for counselor training on FAFSA completion.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education began to allow states to share information about students’ FAFSA completion with local districts and college-access groups to help them target filing assistance to nonapplicants.
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“Now the challenge is for states,” to use that information, said Greg Darnieder, special assistant for college access at the Education Department.
The Kresge Foundation gave a technical assistance grant to the Colorado higher education department to help interested states build systems to link to the federal data with free software and a secure data-management platform. So far, five states have agreed to use the system, said Misti D. Ruthven, the director of postsecondary readiness for the state education department.
High schools would welcome tracking data on FAFSA completion, but that information has not trickled down to the building level in many places, said Michael E. Allison, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
At Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, Pa., where Allison is principal, educators have teamed with Penn State University officials to walk students through the FAFSA, especially first-generation college-going families who find it “daunting,” he said.
Push for Deeper Change
But there is a growing sense that outreach on its own is not enough to make dramatic increases in FAFSA-filing rates. Many agree the FAFSA must be simplified to be more effective, said the University of Houston’s McKinney.
Obama administration officials have made some improvements, helping reduce the average FAFSA completion time through technical changes that allow applicants to skip certain questions and prepopulate their forms with tax information from the Internal Revenue Service.
And, as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is up for review by Congress, several FAFSA proposals have emerged. This summer, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Michael Bennet, (D-Colo.) proposed a two-question FAFSA that could fit on a postcard.
While appealing, that doesn’t provide enough information for colleges, said Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. His group has recommended three different paths for filling out the FAFSA, depending on the complexity of a family’s financial situation. Low-income families who have already qualified for federal aid would answer the minimal questions. Those with more complicated circumstances would have longer forms. The NASFAA recommendations include letting families use two-year-old income data to determine eligibility, rather than previous-year figures—a proposal known as “prior-prior” year. That would allow students to apply for aid when they apply for college, rather than waiting until spring.
Dozens of other organizations have endorsed the use of “prior-prior” income information and other ways of simplifying the FAFSA. Some have even called for eliminating the FAFSA altogether and basing students’ eligibility on their family’s income-tax filing.
Said McKinney: “At least now there is a critical mass of researchers, communities, and people giving attention to the problem that it seems like it’s an idea to come or about to come.”
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as Is the Federal College-Aid Form Too Hard?