Improving College Accessibility With a Simple Reform

For the poorest students, this knowledge could mean the difference between going to college and not.

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National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Cur­rently, col­lege ap­plic­ants must wait to ap­ply for fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid un­til the second semester of their seni­or year in high school. That’s be­cause the ap­plic­a­tion re­quires in­come data from the pri­or cal­en­dar year. The res­ult is that mil­lions of col­lege ap­plic­ants don’t know how much they will have to pay un­til just be­fore they have to make their de­cision about which school to at­tend.

But what if stu­dents could ap­ply for fin­an­cial aid in the be­gin­ning of their seni­or year — us­ing their fam­ily’s tax in­form­a­tion from one cal­en­dar year earli­er? This would al­low ap­plic­ants — par­tic­u­larly those who plan to at­tend a pub­lic col­lege or uni­versity — to learn much more about their fin­an­cial-aid pack­ages far soon­er than they cur­rently do.

The pro­posed change has peppered le­gis­la­tion throughout the Cap­it­ol, as mem­bers of Con­gress pre­pare a slew of high­er-edu­ca­tion bills. And law­makers think it could make a big dif­fer­ence in en­cour­aging low-in­come stu­dents to at­tend col­lege.

Right now, Janu­ary is the earli­est that stu­dents can fill out their Free Ap­plic­a­tion for Fed­er­al Stu­dent Aid — and that’s as­sum­ing their par­ents have filed their taxes early for the year just ended. Of­ten, fam­il­ies file later. This means that some stu­dents don’t re­ceive their fin­an­cial-aid pack­ages un­til just a few weeks be­fore the en­roll­ment dead­lines for most col­leges. That’s too late for many stu­dents, says Megan Mc­Cle­an, dir­ect­or of policy and fed­er­al re­la­tions for the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Stu­dent Fin­an­cial Aid Ad­min­is­trat­ors. “A lot of times, our low-in­come stu­dents are first-gen­er­a­tion, and they’re the first ones to go to col­lege,” she says. “It’s bet­ter to have more time for the pro­cess.”

(J Heroun)Fil­ing the FAF­SA in the fall would al­low ap­plic­ants to know, be­fore they even ap­ply to col­lege, how much fed­er­al aid they are likely to re­ceive. And since most pub­lic col­leges rely on the FAF­SA to de­term­ine their aid pack­ages, stu­dents could learn of their po­ten­tial state and school grants at the same time.

For the poorest stu­dents, that know­ledge could mean the dif­fer­ence between go­ing to col­lege and not. If low-in­come stu­dents know be­fore ap­ply­ing that they have $5,000 avail­able in fed­er­al grant money, they might see post­sec­ond­ary school­ing as a vi­able op­tion. “By ju­ni­or year [of high school], they can tell you ex­actly what you can get,” says Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee, a co­spon­sor of one of the bills that would change the in­come ques­tion on the FAF­SA to the “pri­or pri­or year” — that is, the tax year two years be­fore the stu­dent enters col­lege.

This idea has bi­par­tis­an sup­port. It is part of an­oth­er, broad­er bill sponsored by Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tom Har­kin of Iowa, who chairs the Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee, which will con­sider all fin­an­cial-aid pro­pos­als in the Sen­ate. House Re­pub­lic­ans also in­cluded the pro­pos­al in le­gis­la­tion de­signed to make the en­tire fin­an­cial-aid ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess less daunt­ing.

Last year, Mc­Cle­an’s group con­duc­ted an in-depth re­view of 160,000 FAF­SA ap­plic­a­tions. It found that about 70 per­cent of grantees would see no change in their awards if they used the “pri­or pri­or” year’s in­come on their ap­plic­a­tions. About 20 per­cent of grantees would see a change of more than $1,000, up or down, in their fed­er­al grants. Every­one else would see smal­ler changes.

All told, the re­search­ers said that 3 mil­lion grantees could see their fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid af­fected if the tax year is pushed back. That must be taken in­to con­sid­er­a­tion, Mc­Cle­an ac­know­ledges. But she notes that fin­an­cial-aid ad­min­is­trat­ors could change awards on a case-by-case basis if, for ex­ample, an ap­plic­ant’s par­ent loses his or her job between the two tax years.

And for every­one else? Fig­ur­ing out how to pay for col­lege — an in­cred­ibly stress­ful and daunt­ing pro­cess for many low-in­come stu­dents — could end up be­ing easi­er. 

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