When it comes to federal grants for college, the government cannot get out of its own way. The process is encased in bureaucracy. Every family must fill out a mega form in order to receive grants (SEOG and Pell). A lot is at stake because these grants offer big benefits for those paying for college.
So, as the director of a non-profit organization helping low-income families in the Boston area to apply to college, I was heartened to see the recent upsurge in serious concern about college financial aid and, in particular, about the Free Application for Financial AID (FAFSA) form, including calls for the elimination of the form altogether. The form, which must be filled out by students and families requesting federal financial aid, is used by the Department of Education (DOE) to calculate the amount it believes that families should be responsible for paying each year for their child's college education. This amount is called the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, and colleges use this in deciding how much financial aid they will offer, including need-based federal Pell grants, college scholarships, work-study, and loans.
Much of the concern about the FAFSA is about just how long and complicated it is. There are 108 questions, many of which have little or no impact on student aid eligibility but which are difficult to understand and to answer. In addition, there are reams of pages of instructions that are equally, if not more, complicated. It is as challenging to fill out as the IRS tax forms, partly because you have to get all of your tax information together to put it all into the FAFSA while you're doing it.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in an effort to increase the number of U.S. students attending college, is calling for the total elimination of the FAFSA application form. The Gates Foundation estimates that, with elimination of the hurdle of the form, two million more qualified students could get the financial aid they need and gain access to the $2.9 billion in federal grant dollars that currently go unused.
There is good research that shows that the overly long and complicated FAFSA form is a barrier to millions of families applying for financial aid. As a result, they may not apply to college or they may have to take on more debt than they can afford.
The difficulties associated with filling out this form is, without a doubt, disproportionally affecting those who would need financial aid the most, such as low-income families and first-generation college-goers. Language may be another impediment. In our organization's college preparation classes for parents, our trainers spend hours going through the form, providing assistance and encouragement. Our record of success is high and our families are able to receive the financial aid that makes the difference between attending college and not. This is a difference of great significance in their lives and in their communities.
Unfortunately, our reach and that of similar organizations is limited. As a result, the majority of families in a similar bind are without access to the level of assistance is needed.
My inclination, based upon my experience, falls just short of supporting the total elimination of the form. I am more in favor of a legislative proposal by senators Bennet, D-Colo., and Alexander, R-Tenn., which would scrap the current form and use a short "postcard" Student Aid Short Form with only a few questions on it asking for an applicant's family size and household income from the two years prior. One advantage that the short form has over total elimination is that it keeps parents involved in the process and serves, for them, as an acknowledgment of their active role in seeking financial aid.
Introduced in January of 2015, the Bennet-Alexander FAST Act would simplify the process of applying for and receiving federal financial aid and allow the year-round use of Pell Grants, as well as to discourage over-borrowing and simplify repayments. Another important part of the legislation would inform high school students of the amount they'll receive in federal aid to help pay for college in their junior year rather than their senior year, allowing them to make earlier and more information-based choices about to which colleges they can afford to apply.
These proposed changes in the FAFSA and financial aid process would greatly increase the number of students, particularly those from low-income families, applying and qualifying for financial aid. Moreover, I believe they would go a long way toward reducing income inequality and increasing the diversity of our middle class.
The FAFSA form and the present financial aid system presents significant barriers to too many families in applying to college. We cannot depend upon congress to make piecemeal revisions. I say, go for it! The time has come for a change that can make a real difference.