In a 2006 report, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education said that for a typical household, completing the Federal Application for Student Aid is longer and more complicated than completing the federal tax return. The report also said that people considered the FAFSA to be onerous and confusing. It’s these disheartening qualities of the FAFSA that prohibit many students from applying for much-needed aid. But thanks to University of Michigan researcher Susan Dynarski and her colleagues, this tiresome process could be simplified. To ensure that more students who need financial aid are going to get it, the federal government should start by instituting the simple change that Dynarski recommended.
The FAFSA is five pages long and has 127 questions. Until now, the form had to be filled after tax returns are filed. High school students who apply to college in fall had to wait until the spring of that year to see what kind of aid they would receive. This is inconvenient for students because financial aid can be the “make or break” factor for many students when deciding which university they will attend, and making that decision without knowledge of how much aid to expect is difficult.
In response to this situation, University of Michigan Public Policy Prof. Susan Dynarski and her colleagues came up with a simple solution — a check-off box on tax returns that will replace much of the FAFSA. With this change, parents would be able to use incomes from prior years for a quick online estimate of how much aid their child would receive. Dynarski maintains that most of the data on the FAFSA is unnecessary or already on the IRS Form 1040. This solution could increase the number of applicants by making the process easier.
And that’s an important change. Dynarski’s research also found that low-income families have more difficulty completing the FAFSA. Two-thirds of low-income students have no Internet access at home, half don’t have a parent who previously attended college and 13 percent don’t speak English at home. The proposed change would make it easier for these students to apply for financial aid, and would consequently offer them greater access to a college education. Low-income students deserve the opportunities that a college education presents, and they are dependent upon receiving financial aid to get there.
But while making the process easier is a good start, this change would not solve all the shortcomings in the financial aid process. The University needs to be able to offer more financial aid at such a difficult time for Michigan families. Simplifying the process is one positive change, but efforts to provide increased financial aid are also an important part of providing low-income families with better access to education.
Despite other needed changes regarding financial aid, the government needs to implement Dynarski’s idea as soon as possible, putting an end to one of the worst headaches for high school students applying to college.