Starting January 1, families with college-bound students were able to begin submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Help (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the key to getting most grants, scholarships and loans, but filling it out can be a nightmare.
The application form “ is much too complicated, ” financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz of Edvisors Network told Reuters. “ The FAFSA instructions are a mess” that “ leave you guessing a lot of the period, ” said college savings guru Joe Hurley.
Although some improvements have been made in recent years, including the ability to import recent IRS taxation statements, the complexity of the application process means that too many students are losing out on aid, said Lauren Asher, chief executive of the Institute for College Entry and Success.
Low-income people in particular who could advantage significantly from higher education either don’ t know the form exists or give up after trying to fill this out, Asher said. “ Among the major obstacles to enrollment and completion, ” Asher said, “ is the lack of information about the availability of aid. ”
Here’ s what these experts state should be done to improve the FAFSA:
SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY.
Kantrowitz’ research found that 2 . 3 million students who would have qualified in 2007-08 for your Pell Grant (federal money reserved for those with the greatest financial need) failed to complete the FAFSA. There are nearly as many questions as on a full 1040 income tax form and the number is daunting, particularly to the people students least familiar with the financial aid process.
The form “ chases after a false sense of precision, ” Kantrowitz said, in an attempt to uncover wealthier students trying to masquerade as poor.
“ This loses sight of the principal purpose of the form, which is to help low-income students to pursue a university education by eliminating cost as a hurdle, ” Kantrowitz said. “ The low-income students are forced to jump through hoops so that the form may eliminate eligibility for the small fraction of the percent of students who attempt to game the system. ”
Kantrowitz said the form, and the government financial aid formula, need “ a major simplification. ”
” the number of questions from over 100 to just a handful, such as family revenue, household size and number within college, ” Kantrowitz said, “ plus the student’ s name and contact information. ”
One way to fix the problem is to allow the usage of prior-year tax data. A big amount of financial aid is first-come, first-served, so students are encouraged to submit the FAFSA as soon after the January one as possible.
But the type requires the most recent income information through tax forms, and most families do not have all of their federal income tax data that early in the year. Even after they file their tax returns, it can take per week or more to get the information electronically transferred to the FAFSA site.
Letting families use the previous year’ s tax information such as their own return for 2012, instead of 2013, “ would allow students to have their help eligibility in hand much earlier in the application and admission process, ” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for your National Association for College Admission Counseling.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators endorses the change, which this says would help the neediest students.
CHANGE THE TIME
Students cannot apply for aid before January 1, yet many four-year colleges require admissions applications by December 31. That will leaves families in the dark about what the colleges will actually cost all of them, since they do not know what aid they’ ll get.
Asher’ s organization recommends that families be allowed to apply for aid before they apply for admission, or at least at the same time. Once families are allowed to use prior-year tax data, there shouldn’ t be further barriers to getting obvious answers about what aid they can specialist, Asher said.
“ The whole process could shift in order to using the tax data that’ s i9000 available rather than waiting for after January 1, ” Asher said.
LET THE IRS WRITE THE INSTRUCTIONS
Letting the IRS write instructions may seem counter-intuitive, given the notorious complexity of tax law and the bewildering array of tax forms. But anyone who has tried to fill out the FAFSA will come to understand the strides the IRS has made in recent years in making tax instructions understandable, said Hurley, a CPA just who founded the SavingForCollege. com university savings plan comparison site.
Compared to FAFSA instructions, “ IRS form instructions… are gentle years ahead in terms of thoroughness and consistency, ” Hurley said.