Inside the Boring but Crucial Federal Form That Gets Kids to College

The Obama administration has streamlined the FAFSA, but some students need more than a better website.

Bianca Gutierrez, 16, and her classmates attend Cash for College, a college and career convention, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on December 8, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Cash for College organized by the California Student Aid Commission provides financial aid and college preparation workshops for low income Calfornia residents as well as an exhibit hall full of college and career representatives.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
March 17, 2014, 12:30 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama wants every high school stu­dent in Amer­ica to ap­ply for fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid. “Even if you think you might not qual­i­fy for fin­an­cial aid, fill out the form. You might qual­i­fy,” he told Flor­ida high school stu­dents this month. Many of the 1 mil­lion high school stu­dents who failed to sub­mit the Free Ap­plic­a­tion for Fed­er­al Stu­dent Aid (FAF­SA) last year may be un­able to at­tend col­lege this year as a res­ult — or may turn in­stead to ex­pens­ive private loans to pay for col­lege. 

These days, 85 per­cent of un­der­gradu­ates at U.S. four-year col­leges and uni­versit­ies use fin­an­cial aid to help cov­er the cost of high­er edu­ca­tion. The Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment uses the FAF­SA to cal­cu­late how much a stu­dent’s fam­ily can pay for col­lege, and thus the stu­dent’s eli­gib­il­ity for the vast ma­jor­ity of aid: fed­er­al grants, loans, and work-study money, as well as some state awards and in­sti­tu­tion­al schol­ar­ships.

But the ap­plic­a­tion is more com­plic­ated than the av­er­age tax re­turn, and low-in­come, first-gen­er­a­tion, and minor­ity stu­dents of­ten struggle to fill it out cor­rectly and on time. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has worked to shorten and sim­pli­fy the FAF­SA, but many stu­dents still be­ne­fit from in-per­son sup­port while filling out the form.

One Sat­urday morn­ing last month, more than 100 stu­dents packed in­to two com­puter labs at Prince George’s Com­munity Col­lege in Largo, Md. Many were en­rolled at the col­lege and were filling out the FAF­SA for the next year; oth­ers were high school seni­ors or pro­spect­ive adult stu­dents. Six Prince George’s Com­munity Col­lege fin­an­cial aid of­ficers and an Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment of­fi­cial were on hand to an­swer ques­tions.

The free event was or­gan­ized by Col­lege Goal Sunday, a state-based cam­paign sup­por­ted primar­ily by non­profit and found­a­tion funds. “Most fam­il­ies just want the com­fort and se­cur­ity of hav­ing someone near them in com­plet­ing the form, and just know­ing that they’re do­ing it right,” says Tiffany Reese, na­tion­al co­ordin­at­or for the pro­gram.

Get­ting more stu­dents to go to col­lege has been a pri­or­ity for Obama be­cause more and more middle-class jobs re­quire a col­lege de­gree. Low- to mod­er­ate-in­come stu­dents who get pro­fes­sion­al help filling out a FAF­SA are about 30 per­cent more likely to en­roll in col­lege, a 2009 study led by Stan­ford Uni­versity’s Eric Bet­tinger found. Us­ing that find­ing, Uni­versity of Michigan and North­west­ern re­search­ers cal­cu­lated in 2011 that in­creas­ing FAF­SA com­ple­tion would be one of the cheapest ways to in­crease col­lege en­roll­ment.

The Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment has made it easi­er for stu­dents and fam­il­ies to fill out the FAF­SA on their own by re­mov­ing re­pet­it­ive ques­tions and stream­lin­ing the on­line ap­plic­a­tion us­ing meth­ods com­mon to tax-pre­par­a­tion soft­ware. The on­line form — which al­most all stu­dents now use — skips ques­tions that don’t ap­ply to that stu­dent, alerts them to glar­ing er­rors, and will auto­mat­ic­ally in­put tax in­form­a­tion from the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice. It takes most stu­dents about a half-hour to com­plete.

The pres­id­ent and first lady have both held events pro­mot­ing the new form, and the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment wants to part­ner with states to let high schools know when seni­ors haven’t filled it out. High school coun­selors are per­haps best po­si­tioned to teach stu­dents about the FAF­SA. But na­tion­ally, there are on av­er­age about 471 pub­lic-school stu­dents per guid­ance coun­selor, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation for Col­lege Ad­mis­sion Coun­sel­ing. And not many coun­selors have fin­an­cial aid ex­pert­ise.

Crys­tal Trice, 22, had no idea she could ac­cess fin­an­cial aid un­til she met with Shelby Potts, a pre-col­lege coun­selor at her Mary­land high school. Trice had star­ted dream­ing about col­lege in middle school and was a B-plus stu­dent, but go­ing to col­lege seemed im­possible. “I thought I was ba­sic­ally go­ing to have to pay for everything my­self,” Trice says — a tall or­der for a home­less teen­ager. “There was no way I was go­ing to pay for school off of my own little in­come, work­ing at a min­im­um-wage job.” 

The FAF­SA linked Trice to the fed­er­al, state, and in­sti­tu­tion­al schol­ar­ship money she needed to en­roll at Steven­son Uni­versity out­side Bal­timore, where full-time tu­ition and fees run to $27,082 in 2013-14. Trice is cur­rently work­ing three jobs (two on cam­pus, one at a Bur­ger King) and study­ing for a de­gree in psy­cho­logy and man­age­ment. She’s also work­ing with fin­an­cial aid of­ficers at the school to fig­ure out her FAF­SA for next year.

Potts met Trice through her job with the non­profit South­ern Mary­land Col­lege Ac­cess Net­work. One of the hard­est parts of Potts’s job as a high school ad­viser, she says, is con­vin­cing par­ents — par­tic­u­larly par­ents un­fa­mil­i­ar with the FAF­SA — to re­lin­quish per­son­al fin­an­cial in­form­a­tion, like bank bal­ances, tax re­turns, in­vest­ment re­cords, and re­ceipts for fed­er­al be­ne­fits.

If a stu­dent is un­der 24 (and not home­less, like Trice) her par­ent or leg­al guard­i­an usu­ally needs to provide in­form­a­tion for the FAF­SA — even if that per­son can’t or doesn’t want to help pay for col­lege. “At that point, the par­ent has to make that choice: Are they go­ing to fill out the FAF­SA with the child, so that the child can at least ac­cess fed­er­al loans at a low fixed rate, or is the stu­dent go­ing to have to go out and get private loans?” Potts says.

Ad­visers and FAF­SA com­ple­tion events also help stu­dents meet con­fus­ing dead­lines. The fed­er­al fil­ing dead­line is in June, long after fam­il­ies file their taxes in April. But 17 states re­quire stu­dents to sub­mit the FAF­SA be­fore tax day in or­der to be con­sidered for need-based aid awards. Sev­en states dis­trib­ute need-based aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so stu­dents ac­tu­ally need to sub­mit the form in Janu­ary. All this means that many stu­dents must fill out the FAF­SA early, us­ing older tax in­form­a­tion, and then up­date the form with cur­rent tax in­form­a­tion later.

Some col­leges have gone bey­ond hold­ing ba­sic FAF­SA work­shops to teach stu­dents about man­aging stu­dent loans as well. At Broward Col­lege, a former com­munity col­lege in Flor­ida, a man­dat­ory work­shop and oth­er ef­forts have cut the num­ber of stu­dents tak­ing out private stu­dent loans by 75 per­cent in two years, ac­cord­ing to the Sun Sen­tinel.

But many in­sti­tu­tions could be giv­ing stu­dents clear­er in­struc­tions. A con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tee re­cently cri­ti­cized 111 col­leges for re­quir­ing stu­dents to sub­mit the Col­lege Board’s CSS/Fin­an­cial Aid Pro­file, a more com­plic­ated, fee-based form, or not mak­ing it clear that stu­dents must com­plete the FAF­SA to get fed­er­al aid.

The White House says the num­ber of FAF­SA forms filed has ris­en 33 per­cent since the 2008-09 aca­dem­ic year. That says a lot about rising fin­an­cial need, but it may also say something about in­creased rates of col­lege at­tend­ance. “If they don’t com­plete the FAF­SA, they won’t go to school,” says Shar­on Has­san, state co­ordin­at­or for Col­lege Goal Mary­land. Even in this era when so many jobs re­quire high­er edu­ca­tion, there can be good reas­ons for a stu­dent to opt not to at­tend col­lege. Not filling out the FAF­SA isn’t one of them.

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