Momentum for FAFSA Simplification Builds

By Dennis Pierce

Gates Foundation report makes recommendations to help make it easier for students to apply for federal aid.

A report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has sparked new discussion about simplifying the process of applying for federal student aid — a move that could eliminate redundancies in college financial-aid offices and encourage as many as 2 million more students per year to attend college.

“Today’s process is complex, redundant and does not allow much time for students and their families to complete their applications and make important decisions,” the report argues. “This leads many students … to avoid or abandon their aid applications,” while countless others never even begin the process.

The foundation calls for federal officials to make the 108-question Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) “simpler, more transparent and better timed for students and their families” by removing seldom-answered questions, using existing tax data and matching the required information to the complexity of students’ financial situations.

The Gates Foundation proposes three specific actions to meet this goal:

  • Sort students according to the complexity of their financial situations, and eliminate unnecessary questions.

“Three-quarters of all aid applicants do not have situations that would require them to file tax schedule documents,” the report asserts. “These students should face the minimum number of questions.”

It proposes a revised FAFSA with only 23 questions for students whose families file a 1040EZ, 1040A or 1040 tax return with no schedules or additional forms. For the remaining applicants, “more information will be needed — but the number of questions can still be reduced.”

  • Streamline the application process by using tax data already provided by students’ households to the IRS.

This would “reduce the burden for students and their families and improve the accuracy of the information provided,” the report says — while also freeing up time for financial-aid administrators to advise students instead of verifying their tax information.

A 2005 estimate determined that colleges verified the tax information for as many as 30 percent of applicants, the report said — resulting in an estimated $432 million in unnecessary time and expense at colleges nationwide.

  • Provide more time for students to apply by using prior-prior year tax data rather than prior-year data.

This would “allow students to apply for aid months earlier than they can now,” the report argues — giving students and their families more time to weigh their options and make more informed decisions.

According to a recent analysis, nearly 2 million students per year who are eligible for Pell grants do not file a FAFSA, the foundation said — and more than half of those would be eligible for the maximum grant amount. “Getting even a portion of these students through the aid application process and into college would represent a significant step toward increasing postsecondary access and success and meeting workforce needs,” it said.

The Gates Foundation believes simplifying the form would allow students to complete it on a mobile device, further encouraging more applicants.

President Barack Obama spoke out in favor of simplifying the FAFSA earlier this year. A Gates Foundation representative told The Associated Press that most of its proposed changes would require congressional approval.

Meanwhile, U.S. senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have introduced a bill that would eliminate the current form and replace it with just two questions: one about an applicant’s family size and another about household income from the two previous years. Their bill had seven other co-sponsors as of press time, including both Democrats and Republicans.

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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