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Expand Higher Ed Access, Beginning with FAFSA

I am one of the millions of undergraduate and graduate students who sought federal aid to attend school by filing out the FAFSA this year. I’ve filled out the FAFSA several times, and as a current J.D./M.A. student, filling out the FAFSA every year usually falls to the bottom of my task list and always encourages a few choice words. Not only is answering over 100 questions time consuming, but the questions themselves are often complex. Moreover from my perspective, annually completing the FAFSA seems increasingly unnecessary considering the only thing that has consistently changed in my life in the past six years is my address and my increasing student loan debt.

Unfortunately, the FAFSA is not only a laborious task for current undergraduate and graduate students – the complexity actually deters high school graduates from applying for the federal aid that would help them achieve a post-secondary degree.$2.7 billion in free federal grant money was left on the table this past school year largely due to incomplete FAFSA forms.

Some improvements have been made to lessen the burden for the 99 percent of applicants who have access to a computer. Advances in online “skip logic” reduce the number of questions posed to online applicants down to 61 questionson average. But those individuals and families without easy access to a computer or the Internet don’t reap the benefit of a shorter form, and they are left to submit a paper application with 108 questions (on six pages accompanied by four pages of instructions) that elicit 142 responses. The  ordeal of actually applying, on top of a lack of transparency around how much aid is even potentially available, often ends up hitting students from underserved communities the hardest, those who would benefit most from the aid. Approximately two million Pell Grant eligible students did not file a FAFSA in the 2011-2012 academic year.

The current administration has taken some action to update and improve the FAFSA process, including moving up the application start date to help high school graduates be more informed about available aid prior to typical college application deadlines; expanding usage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to electronically transfer tax information to their online FAFSA; and allowing students and families to use tax information from two years ago, or Prior-Prior Year (PPY). But more needs to be done. First, Congress needs to codify these improvements, or we risk leaving them at the mercy of the next administration to eliminate. Additionally, further improvements need to be made to the questions themselves, not only to reduce the number, but also to actually use those questions to more informatively and effectively distribute aid based on an applicant’s financial capability, rather than a confusing expected family contribution metric.

The federal system for distributing student financial aid has been described as rivaling the complexity of the U.S. tax code. The convoluted FAFSA application has implications beyond deterring potential students from applying and stealing precious studying time from current students. The difficulty also costs colleges, who spent an estimated $432 million to verify FAFSA information in 2009. It would appear the current FAFSA application has high costs for all stakeholders, while failing to serve the applicants that need it most. If we are committed to expanding access to higher education and creating a more equitable system, we need to make the process for beginning and continuing education more achievable for those who need aid the most.

Kaile Sepnafski is a former Young Invincibles Fellow.