In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about some of the hurdles students and families face when completing the FAFSA. In Part 2, I have examined the pros and cons of some of the proposed changes to FAFSA.
Tennessee Senator, Lamar Alexander, believes that it is unnecessary for the FAFSA to ask so many questions in order to calculate need. Instead, he has proposed that the FAFSA be reduced down to the size of a postcard asking only two questions: 1) household size; and, 2) income from two years prior. Although this would make the application astronomically easier for students and their families, many fear this would create an administrative burden for institutions, an increased demand for limited federal funds, and an unrealistic snapshot of financial health.
The administrative burden of performing professional judgment, an institution’s ability to review specific outstanding circumstances to increase their eligibility for aid, would likely increase as familial circumstances would be harder to capture. For instance, families that have a higher income, but are unable to account for any offsetting capital losses, puts them at increased risk for aid ineligibility. On the other hand, income reported could be low, but the applicant could have sizeable assets and investments that would not be taken into account, making them eligible to receive aid although they may have substantial resources. This loss of data would likely shift the burden onto states and institutions to provide custom forms to effectively capture this information before awarding and disbursing their funds. In addition, Senator Alexander assumes that income information is readily available to student applicants. Many students struggle to get sensitive financial information from their parents, if they can locate their parents at all. It is essential for proposers to acknowledge that the issues with completing the FAFSA are not solely related to the length of the form, but the information requested, the applicant’s understanding of what is requested and their ability to access it.
On the other hand, there are some who are calling into question the need for the FAFSA at all. Education economist Carlo Salerno suggests, “If tax data alone can be used to calculate EFCs then the entire process can be streamlined dramatically by having individuals calculate their own EFCs in a 1040 schedule or worksheet.” Salerno believes that the simplification could come from transparency and self-sufficiency by allowing the calculation to simply come directly from the tax return rather than shifting the burden back and forth between the Department of Education and institutions to which they serve. However, if an applicant does not file taxes, as many needy applicants do not, Salerno has not yet proposed a solution.
Working in the financial aid industry, I am keenly aware of the need to balance ease of use for students with the administrative burden on the schools’ financial aid offices. In part three of this series, I examine what schools can do today to eliminate some of the hurdles students and families face when completing the FAFSA.
- Part 1: The Hurdles for Low Income and Diverse Families
- Part 3: Helping Low Income and Diverse Families Over the Hurdles Today