Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=125555
Story Retrieval Date: 5/18/2013 10:57:44 AM CST
WASHINGTON – There’s free money out there for college, and it’s often not going to the people who need it most.
Each year, more than a million low- to moderate-income students miss out on financial assistance for which they are eligible simply because they fail to apply. Students, parents, and financial aid officials have long complained that the application process is complicated, time-consuming,and more than a little confusing.
With six pages of probing personal and financial questions, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a big part of the problem. The form has long been a target of criticism by lawmakers and education experts for being too complex and missing the mark on reaching the neediest students.
“We get caught up in the drama of asking poor people an incredible number of times to document that they’re poor,” said Phil Day, the president and CEO of the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators.
During the campaign, President Barack Obama vowed to do away with the FAFSA, as the form is known, in its current form. His education plan calls for making the form “easier to complete and more effective for students.” The Department of Education has named FAFSA reform as one of its priorities already this year.
“The FAFSA form, I don’t know if any of you have completed one lately, but you basically have to have a Ph.D. to figure that thing out,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told senators at his confirmation hearing in January.
Past attempts to pass legislation on FAFSA reform have failed to gain traction in Congress. Last year’s Higher Education Opportunity Act looked to streamline the application process by reducing the number of questions on the form. But that’s not enough, some experts say.
“For many students, paying for college is a big challenge,” said Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst for the College Board and an economics professor at Skidmore College in N.Y. “We have these financial aid programs designed to help students and if they can’t access them, that just makes no sense.”
Baum believes a complete overhaul of the FAFSA is the key to ensuring that aid gets to students who need financial assistance the most. She advocates eliminating the application and transitioning to a system where financial data would be pulled from the Internal Revenue Service.
“This is where everybody is headed. Why don’t we try to find a way to use the IRS system and income reporting system?” said Day. “That’s the type of simplification that we’re looking at, and I think that’s exactly where the president and the administration are going, too. The question is can we get there?”
Some critics worry that getting rid of the FAFSA altogether could mean that individual colleges will be forced to require their own rigorous forms for school-based financial aid. But with schools paying about $400 million a year in administrative costs to verify income information on the FAFSA, it’s unlikely they’ll scoff at the cost-saving measures.
“Schools can save a lot of money and students can get a better idea of what aid they can get,” said Andrew Gillen, a research director for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
Gillen and Day said the point of simplifying the form should be to give students a better idea of what their eligibility would be, as early as possible.
“The idea is that even as their kids are going through middle school, [parents] can get periodic updates about how much they are eligible for,” said Day, whose organization plans to release a comprehensive study on financial aid by the end of the month.
FAFSA reform may have lacked momentum in the past, but the support of the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress has financial aid professionals optimistic about seeing real results this legislative session.
In a report to Congress earlier this year, the Department of Education laid out principles for reforming the student aid process, which would include targeting aid to the neediest students and making the form “predictable, portable and distributed through fewer federal programs to ensure a consistent application process.”
“This process and timeline is too often a barrier to students who wish to participate in postsecondary education, especially students from low-income families, first-generation college students and those who do not have access to counselors or mentors to assist them through the process,” the report reads.
At the heart of the debate is the issue of access for all students. Obama has said he wants to have the world’s highest graduation rate by 2020, advocating postsecondary education as a necessity, not a privilege.
“It’s really clear that something needs to be done and this is something that can be done to help students without legislating a lot of new money,” Baum said. “It’s not like we’re arguing, ‘Let’s have some fancy new program.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s make the programs we have now work for people,’ and this is a good time to do something like that.”