President Barack Obama is announcing some changes to the notoriously difficult process students and families must go through in applying for federal financial aid, using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
The changes—which Obama is to roll out Monday in Des Moines, Iowa—are aimed at giving students information about how much aid they qualify for earlier on in the college-application process, and encouraging more low-income students to go after federal grants and loans. UPDATED: The FAFSA website now includes an outline of the new rules, and the White House posted a run-down of the changes on its website.
The federal government has already taken some of the pain out of filling out the FAFSA by giving students the chance to have a portion of their forms filled out automatically, using their families’ tax information already on file at the Internal Revenue, or IRS.
But that hasn’t solved the whole problem, in part because right now, students begin filling out financial aid forms in January, when not everyone has gotten around to doing their taxes for the year just yet. (Taxes, after all, aren’t due until April 15.) The White House plans to allow students to get started much sooner, beginning in October, and to use tax information from the year before to automatically fill out the form.
The change, which will kick in as of October 2016, will likely mean that more students will be eligible for Pell Grants and other assistance. In fact, the White House estimates that 2 million college students could have had access to Pell Grants—which help low-income students pay for college—but didn’t because they never filed the proper forms.
UPDATED: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call Monday that he believes the new rules will increase financial aid, and college access, for “literally hundreds of thousands” more students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their families to go to college. Those students, he said, have long experienced the 108-question FAFSA as a “barrier to financial aid.”
“This shift in the time frame may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal,” he said. It will “open the door to a new world of opportunity” for many students and families “who historically have been locked out.”
Handing out more federal aid to students, however, comes with a pricetag. When asked about that, Duncan responded that the cost would be “very, very minor.” When pressed, he said the government projected that the change would cost about 1 percent of the total annual cost of the Pell grant program, which was an estimated $31.4 billion in fiscal year 2015.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators is a fan of the change, known in higher-ed circles as “prior-prior,” as you can see from this wonky policy brief it wrote on the issue. And folks who aren’t experts in federal financial aid might find this explanation of the policy from National Public Radio useful.
The announcement comes on the eve of U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s annual back-to-school bus tour, which will focus largely on early childhood and higher education and will include stops at five universities. Obama will join Duncan for the very first day of the tour—the two will hold a town hall on college access and affordability at North High School in Des Moines.
UPDATED: During his remarks in Des Moines, Obama said that the new changes to the FAFSA process were aimed at making the road to postsecondary education easier. “No young person in America should be priced out of college,” he said.
He told the story of a recent graduate of North High who had been homeless for portions of his junior and senior years. Even as he dealt with those struggles, the student filled out the FAFSA and applied for scholarships, finding that he “qualified for thousands” in aid, Obama said. He used that support to enroll in college, and is now a freshman studying accounting, he told the cheering crowd. “That’s why we’re here, [that’s] what this is all about,” he said. “Students like many of you who want to take that next step, have big dreams. We want you to know we’re here to help you achieve those dreams.”
Obama and Duncan aren’t the only folks in Washington who want to make the FAFSA easier for students. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have teamed up on legislation that would make the FAFSA so short that it would fit on a postcard.
For its part, the White House wants Congress to eliminate 30 questions from the current form that it sees as redundant or unnecessary. That could be done as part of a rewrite of the Higher Education Act, which lawmakers are slated to begin to tackle in coming months.
UPDATE: The Institute for College Access & Success issued a statement welcoming Obama’s new rules, saying they fix “a major timing problem” that complicated financial aid for many students. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, too, lauded the shift, saying it would give students and families an “earlier and more accurate idea” of their college costs. And Reps John Kline, R-Minn., and Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who head up the committee and subcommittee in Congress focused on higher education policy, said in a joint statement that they think the policy change is headed in the right direction. But they worry that there’s no plan in place to deal with the added cost.
“This change will help students and families make smarter, more timely decisions about paying for a college education,” Kline and Foxx said, “But make no mistake, this announcement comes at a cost to taxpayers, and it seems the administration has no responsible plan to pay for it.”
Catherine Gewertz contributed to this report.