Improving College Accessibility With a Simple Reform

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

Dollar symbol
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
See more stories about...
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. 

What We're Following See More »
WORDS AND PICTURES
White House Looks Back on bin Laden Mission
59 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE
NO BATTLE OVER SEATTLE
SCOTUS Won’t Hear Appeal of Minimum-Wage Law
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a sweeping constitutional challenge to Seattle’s minimum wage law, in what could have been a test case for future legal attacks on similar measures across the country. In a one-line order, the justices declined to hear a case by the International Franchise Association and a group of Seattle franchisees, which had said in court papers that the city’s gradual wage increase to $15 discriminates against them in a way that violates the Constitution’s commerce clause."

Source:
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Sanders Looks to Right the Ship in Indiana
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

Hillary Clinton may have the Democratic nomination sewn up, but Bernie Sanders apparently isn't buying it. Buoyed by a poll showing them in a "virtual tie," Sanders is "holding three rallies on the final day before the state primary and hoping to pull off a win after a tough week of election losses and campaign layoffs." 

Source:
CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION IN JUNE
DC to Release Draft Constitution as Part of Statehood Push
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"The New Columbia Statehood Commission—composed of five District leaders including Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and D.C.'s congressional delegation—voted today to publicly release a draft of a new constitution for an eventual state next Friday, at the Lincoln Cottage." It's the first step in a statehood push this year that will include a constitutional convention in June and a referendum in November.

Source:
ALZHEIMER’S OUTCRY
Will Ferrell Bails on Reagan Movie
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

Amid outcry by President Reagan's children, actor Will Ferrell has pulled out of a movie that makes light of Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. A spokesperson for Ferrell said, “The ‘Reagan’ script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered. While it is by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project."

Source:
×