Ever use the long form to submit your taxes, without a CPA’s help? Now multiply the complexity by about 10.
That’s what it can feel like to fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Except that the FAFSA can be even more cumbersome, with 88 pages of instructions and 105 detailed questions about a family’s income in order to determine eligibility.
The application for federal student aid is so complicated that many in higher education see the FAFSA as a significant roadblock for low-income and first-generation students getting into college. It can be especially cumbersome for non-intact families as it requires applicants to provide income information for both parents. If one refuses to cooperate, it can delay or derail a student’s college hopes.
Now there’s a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to simplify the application to two questions: What is your family size? What was your household income two years ago? (That eliminates the need to wait for parents to calculate their taxes for the current year.)
Another idea, forwarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others would directly base eligibility on tax information submitted to the Internal Revenue Service. So much of the information required by the FAFSA is already collected by the IRS, so why force families to go through a duplicative process?
Simplification can have big results. According to The New York Times, when economists ran a trial in which families applied for a aid using a greatly simplified form, they found that the percentage of low-income students who attended college for two years increased from 28 to 36 percent. Imagine the results if all they had to do was link to their parents’ tax return.
Some states and colleges are concerned about changes to the FAFSA because they use the information to make their own decisions regarding aid. Even so, those who have studied the form conclude that dozens of questions add virtually nothing to the final determination of aid and could easily be eliminated.
For instance, why ask parents whose household income is only $15,000 whether they receive food stamps? The student is already eligible for the maximum aid grant.
Anything that significantly simplifies the burdensome FAFSA process would make it easier for the neediest students to afford higher education. That’s a goal worth supporting.