Why a Streamlined FAFSA Could Cut the Red Tape to College Aid

February 8, 2017

By Allie Ciaramella, Communications Manager 

Share your FAFSA story with elected officials here

A first-generation North Carolina student, Carlos says he wouldn’t have been able to attend college without it. It helped Sydney – 96% of whose high school classmates were eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch – attend her dream private college in Georgia. And after it opened Bryce’s eyes to all the ways he could finance a postsecondary education, it nearly yanked the rug out from under him. 

Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an essential process for most prospective college students; 85 percent of four-year students receive financial aid, and those who complete the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to enroll. But the form also poses barriers that can make or break a postsecondary education, as Bryce’s story demonstrates. He spoke to members of Congress and higher education professionals at an NCAN briefing on Capitol Hill this week about why lawmakers should simplify the financial aid application, and one possible approach to doing so: NCAN’s Streamlined FAFSA

NCAN members at the event corroborated the students’ stories, and noted that they’re far from unique – pointing to the need for a simpler FAFSA that would not only give advisors time to work with more individual students, but would allow them to spend precious hours training additional education staff to do the same. This would help extend our organizations’ reach to “all the other students across the country who don’t have that ‘access to access,’ if you will,” said Bonnie Sutton, president and CEO of ACCESS College Foundation in Norfolk, VA, which provides scholarships, career development, parental advising and other free services to up to 30,000 students each year.

NCAN’s Streamlined FAFSA reduces the current form’s 142 questions by half or more, with the lowest-income students asking the fewest number of questions. Families indicated the user-tested model is not only shorter and faster, but also easier to use and more accurate than the existing FAFSA. Goals of the Streamlined FAFSA include to stop asking poor students to repeatedly prove they’re poor, and help low-income students know they’ll receive aid; to improve the user experience, removing questions that are not needed for the federal aid formula and that are answered by the fewest number of people; to maintain the universality of the form; and to increase FAFSA filings.

At Capitol Hill on Tuesday, 23 lawmakers’ offices held meetings with representatives from 11 NCAN-member organizations: Access College Foundation, College Advising Corps, College Success Foundation, Public Education Foundation Chattanooga, College Forward, College Success Arizona, Denver Scholarship Foundation, Florida College Access Network, Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, Tennessee College Access and Success Network, and uAspire.

“I shouldn’t be having to spend time helping them through the form, question by question, when they are academically bright students,” said Annie Wells, a senior college advisor at Davidson College Advising Corps, which places 18 advisors in 19 North Carolina high schools.

With no parental knowledge to lean on, Carlos at first had no idea what the FAFSA was or how to confront it, but with help from his persistent advisor at Davidson College Advising Corps, Carlos was able to file the application and ultimately choose a good-fit institution.

“I remember going in multiple times – ‘Did I do this right? What does this mean?’” Carlos said. “The FAFSA was just a riddle that had to be solved for me. It took a long time.”

In fact, despite the refrain that the FAFSA takes just one hour to complete, for certain students it takes far longer – about two weeks in Carlos’ case.

The delay – which can lead to students dropping off and never completing their FAFSA – often arises from the need for students to communicate back and forth with their parents about complicated tax and financial information. But students at Tuesday’s event said the launch of Early FAFSA – whereby the application is available three months earlier, on Oct. 1 – helped to remedy that problem. For college students filing renewal FAFSAs, fall and winter breaks are now opportunities to prepare for and get started on the form, they said. 

Assuming an experienced filer can tackle renewal alone can be a devastating miscalculation, as Bryce learned.  He admits he should have taken college planning more seriously, but thankfully he was targeted by a convincing advisor from ACCESS. Bryce not only completed the form, he secured a full-ride scholarship to James Madison University.

Then Bryce decided to give his renewal FAFSA a go with no assistance. “I was just kind of guessing; I thought, I can do this on my own,” he said, pausing shortly. “I couldn’t do it on my own.”

The summer before his sophomore year, Bryce was informed that his FAFSA wasn’t in fact complete, and he needed to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Upon doing so, he and his ACCESS advisor realized Bryce had entered incorrect information about his father’s business – and lost his whole scholarship in the process. With his advisor’s help, Bryce was able to regain his scholarship eligibility.

“Without that, I may have had to drop out of college,” Bryce told NCAN. “ACCESS has already assisted me in refiling my FAFSA for the upcoming school year!” 

NCAN members lamented that more colleges don’t have “deliberate and intentional” mechanisms to continue supporting low-income and first-generation students once they get to campus, but Sutton said many institutions are trying to do better. Advisors lauded Appalachian State University when Carlos mentioned officials host free FAFSA nights – food included (“it’s a great way to motivate students to get out there and learn more about the FAFSA and get help if they need it,” Carlos noted). Wells added that students want a college that hosts an event where staff will actually be present to answer questions and offer help on the FAFSA, versus one that sends a simple email reminder to file the form. 

That college services are sometimes lacking makes “fit and match” all the more important. NCAN members said a key benefit to fixing the FAFSA would be freeing up more time to zero in on students’ mentalities, career goals and consequently suitable colleges – starting when students are high school freshmen, not seniors. 

“Students who go to colleges who know what to do with a student like them are more likely to succeed, especially with the financial aid process,” said Stacy Lightfoot, vice president of college and career success at Public Education Foundation Chattanooga. “A simpler FAFSA means more time to help more students to find colleges that know what to do with students like them.” 

NCAN’s Streamlined FAFSA comes at early awareness in another way: low-income students can know right away, before even completing the form, that they’re eligible for a full Pell Grant. Low-income students are less likely than their wealthier peers to file the FAFSA, even though 92 percent of those who do receive free grants. 

Overwhelmed by the required tax information, many students at Sydney’s Tennessee high school put off the FAFSA and ultimately forgo college, she said, noting that more than nine in 10 of her peers received free- or reduced-price meals and due to limited resources, any access services focused mainly on those who seemed most likely to complete college. 

When I hear of a statistic like that, I realize how many of those students are going to need help through the process,” Lightfoot said. “If there are only three counselors and one part-time college and career advisor, some of those students are being left by the wayside … there needs to be more help for students like Sydney that will enable them to make it to their senior year in college.” 

Improving college access and completion is not just about the individual students, added Yolanda Watson Spiva, president and CEO of the College Success Foundation, which serves students in Washington State and the District of Columbia. 

“This is a public good – this benefits all of us when we have an educated citizenry,” she said. “It’s about all of us and how we are better as a society … each of these students will show us today and every day in the future that it was worth it.”

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