For many students and their parents, the Free Application
for Federal Student Aid is a dreaded and time-consuming yearly
tradition.

If recently proposed changes go through, though, that process could become less grueling, starting in the 2010-2011 school year.

At a speech at Harvard University on Thursday, United States Secretary
of Education Margaret Spellings proposed major changes to the FAFSA
form, reducing the length of the form from six pages to three and cutting almost 100 questions off the application.

“It’s six pages long, has more than 120 questions and it asks how old
you are three different ways,” Spellings said in her speech.

The proposal follows the work of the Commission on the Future of
Higher Education, launched by Spellings, and the College Opportunity
and Affordability Act of 2008.

The bill, signed into law on Aug. 14, required the Secretary of Education to reduce the number of questions by at least 50 percent.

The commission found that many consider the form onerous and confusing.

“For the typical household, the Free Application for Federal Student
Aid, or FAFSA, is longer and more complicated than the federal tax
return,” the Commission said in their 2006 report. “We found that our
financial aid system is confusing, complex, inefficient, duplicative,
and frequently does not direct aid to students who truly need it.”

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a working draft of
what the shortened FAFSA might look like in 2010.

Susan Dynarski, a professor of education and public policy at the
University of Michigan, supported the changes, saying much of the
application was unnecessary.

“You don’t need 90 percent of the FAFSA to give out federal aid,” Dynarski said.

Rackham student Nicole Dicelson said she thinks the simplifications will be “great.”

“Make my life easier,” she said. “When I know it’s time to do my FAFSA again it makes me sad — I don’t want to do it.”

Federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education intend to share more data, to prevent applicants from having to provide information the government already has, said Michael Robbins, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D – MI).

Spellings said the changes would help the Department of Education
release federal aid information earlier than usual. That way, students
can know how much aid they will receive before they apply to college.

“The costs of complexity and uncertainty are high: many high school
students won’t even start on the path to college if they aren’t
certain they can afford it,” Dynarski said. Simplifying the FAFSA
would help “students on the margin of not going to college.”

Spellings described the FAFSA’s intimidating complexity as red tape
that “keeps 40 percent of college students from even applying for
federal aid.”

“That’s nearly 8 million students — and we believe most would have
been eligible for assistance,” Spellings said.

Joyce Williams, the Career Center Coordinator at Pioneer High School
in Ann Arbor, said that the current application can discourage
low-income students who need the aid most.

She said the FAFSA has questions that often don’t apply to these
students or could confuse them. It asks about retirement funds and
investments that low-income students and their parents don’t often
have.

She said the Department of Education also encourages applicants to use the online application, but many low-income students don’t have
computers or Internet access at home.

“The government barely sends out paper forms anymore,” Williams said.

Though the University has outreach efforts at high schools and
community centers to help students file their FAFSAs, John Boshoven, a
college counselor at Community High School in Ann Arbor, said getting
his low-income students to file their aid forms is an uphill battle.

“The families that least often show up are the ones that most need the
help,” Boshoven said. The FAFSA “discourages the people you least want
to discourage,” he said.

Despite the potential benefits of a shorter FAFSA, some questioned how effective they’ll be.

Boshoven praised Spellings’s proposal to simplify the FAFSA, but noted
that individual colleges’ information demands could effectively
nullify such reforms.

Many colleges require students to file an additional financial aid
form specific to their institution. Even if questions are removed from
FAFSA, they could be added back onto the institution-specific forms.

In addition to the FAFSA, the University requires students applying
for University need-based grants and scholarships to fill out the
College Scholarship Search Profile, which is administered by the
College Board.

“I suspect that the profile could be simplified, too,” Dynarski said.

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