Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Simplify the FAFSA - Just Do It

by Andrew Gillen

IHE brings our attention to a National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs survey whose point is that simplifying the FAFSA will leave many states without the data they want to use to make their own awards.

The correct response to this is: too bad. A Lumina funded project that should be released in the coming months lead me to look into FAFSA simplification, and this objection is one of the main barriers that have consistently thwarted reform. As I wrote (see here for a current draft, comments welcome)
One of the main obstacles to reform is the notion that a simplified FAFSA would not serve the needs of all states, schools, and scholarship organizations. After all, the FAFSA was intended to be a universal, catch-all form. Some argue that there is little point in having a very simple FAFSA if the students are required to fill out numerous other forms.

Given what we know today, these goals are misguided. Even the current monstrosity is not sufficient for many schools, whose students are required to fill out the College Boards’ CCS Financial Aid Profile. This form goes even further than the FAFSA in trying to determine ability to pay by requiring even more detail, particularly family assets.

The desire to be everything to everybody has lead to a least common denominator situation. For instance, all “students today are required to answer the approximately 20 non-financial questions on the FAFSA required by various state aid agencies, regardless of their own state’s data requirements.” In other words, the goal of universality has not been achieved, and the catch-all goal, to the extent it has been achieved, is achieved only by burdening every student in the country with irrelevant questions. A better FAFSA would focus on one thing and one thing only – determining eligibility for means-tested federal financial aid. If states and schools want something else, then they are free to try and impose those costs on their applicants.
Later on, I note that this combined with the other barriers
hints that it may be easier to scrap the entire system and start over from scratch, since the new system could be presented as a complete package, and compared to the existing dysfunctional system as a whole. This would avoid the problem of only looking at one small piece at a time, each typically unobjectionable in isolation, but combining to give us the extremely complicated, costly, and inefficient system we have today.
Arne Duncan and Robert Shireman have been absolutely terrific on this issue. Hopefully they will be able to overcome the obstacles in their way and achieve truly fundamental changes instead of having to settle for cosmetic tweaks.


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Practitioner said...

Good points about the FAFSA. An additional point to remember is that states and (particularly) institutions add questions so as to help fill out their enrollment management yield cells, often to the disadvantage of the very students the FAFSA is supposed to help. The huge shift of resources toward the non-needy could not have been done so easily without enrollment managers manipulating the data collected in addition to the FAFSA.

Elliot said...

After reading your blog, I found out I was misinformed about FAFSA, and thought I didn't qualify.
Ironically, how information gets misinformed, thanks to your article I went ahead and applied for FAFSA sucessfully.
I hope to receiving financial aid for my courses soon.

Thank you!
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