Part 1: The Hurdles for Low Income and Diverse Families
Any higher education financial aid administrator can attest to the hundreds of varying questions students and their families have regarding financial aid each year. However, before any of those questions can be answered, administrators want to know “have you completed the FAFSA?” From a processing standpoint, the first step seems very simple – complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). But, from a student perspective, this first step may simply be the hurdle that keeps them from receiving aid, and potentially prohibits them from matriculating into a collegiate program. For families that are feeling the full force of the economic crunch, institutions that are struggling with reaching enrollment goals, and a U.S. President that has hinged part of his legacy on reaching the 2020 College Completion goal, there is a collective interest in simplifying the FAFSA and increasing submission. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on what the real issue is.
The most common argument made by families, administrators, and public interest groups is the length of the FAFSA. The FAFSA currently has 108 questions, which is substantially more than on any tax return. Although the FAFSA has seen a reduction of approximately 50 questions as compared to the 2009-2010 FAFSA (1), it still spans six pages in length. There is much debate over which questions should be eliminated as the current form captures tax information, investments and assets, and specific details to filter out varying levels of “needy” students in an effort to better understand familial circumstances. Despite the usefulness of the many questions asked, none of these questions apply to every student. Skip logic has greatly reduced this hurdle, as has the IRS Data Retrieval option, but many students still struggle to answer seemingly straightforward questions.
For example, “household size” initially seems to be a straightforward question, but families are more diverse now than ever. “From 2000 to 2010, the number of people reporting to be living in a household with a same-sex partner rose by 80.4 percent,” according to the 2010 census (2). With same-sex marriage being recognized on a state-by-state basis until the Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, and the increased statistics of self-identifying same-sex households, it is extremely difficult for these families to determine who should be included in their household and whose income should be reported. Likewise, with the increase of middle class homelessness (3), where extended families, neighbors, and friends share housing to reduce expenses, household size is a very challenging question for many to answer.
As a former Director of Financial Aid at a community college, I know first hand how real these challenges are to students and families. It is encouraging to see the current debate over FAFSA Simplification. In part two of this series, I examine the pros and cons of some of the proposed changes to FAFSA.
(1) “Simplifying Student Aid: The Case for an Easier, Faster, and More Accurate FAFSA.” Whitehouse.gov. 1 Sept. 2009. Web. 2 July 2015.
(3) Alden, William. “Homelessness In The Middle Class: Stable Families Reduced To Poverty.” Huffington Post 13 Jan. 2011. Web. 2 July 2015.