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Fixing FAFSA: Are we the Fox, or the Cat? #FixFAFSA
Education/Faces Of FAFSA

People often speak of having “smell memories.” Me? I have weather memories. A bright, clear blue sky on an early fall day reminds me of 9/11, before the plane hit the Pentagon. A middle-of-the-night thunderstorm reminds me of the comparative quiet of nursing a child in a dark room, lit up occasionally by lightning. And these cloudy skies with 85 percent humidity? They remind me of the summer I arrived from California in this town I have called home since 1994. The feeling of Southern swelter reminds me I do complexity with fervor.

I have no choice. #IAMFIRST. That late August afternoon, I had just figured out how to get all of my inexpensive treasures across Interstate 40 in a rented U-Haul, white Ford Escort (with the sporty gray racing stripe) trailing behind. All to get to a graduate school perched high atop the banks of the Potomac and have the chance to open wider the doors of college — and life opportunity — at the intersection of politics and policy.

Life can be complicated, and navigating college as a first-generation student inevitably is. But does it always have to be? We must make hundreds of decisions each and every day, and some of these require great thought and deliberation. Having too many choices or options can lead to paralysis by analysis. In Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Cat,” the fox boasts of 100 ways to escape approaching dogs while the cat only has one. As the dogs arrive, the cat scampers up a tree while the fox is frozen by indecision and is caught. Straightforward solutions are often best.

Washington, D.C. struggles with straightforward. In an attempt to prevent fraud, guard against abuse and consider every contingency, our federal policies are often unduly complex and difficult to navigate. Particularly for those we most intend to help.

A process calling out for a more straightforward approach in higher education is how Americans apply for and receive timely, clear information about federal grants and loans for college. Known as the FAFSA, the federal financial aid form and application process has served us well for 23 years. But if we step back and take the perspective of Aesop’s cat, we need to be honest with ourselves: The FAFSA process offers students and families anything but the clear information they need, when they need it.

Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offered a straightforward solution to the Goldilocks question bandied about in higher education circles — too simple, not simple enough. By using available data from federal tax returns, this new approach would essentially do away with the FAFSA. Just give the Department of Education your name and permission to use your federal tax data, and in turn, you will receive notice of how much grant and loan aid you can get to pay for college.

With a technical solution at hand that maintains the integrity of the system, HCM believes the way forward is to keep a steely-eyed focus on students. The students who have struggled through the old system. The students who have never been able to access the system because of its complexity. The types of students the country has to do a much better job reaching and serving if we are to replace our retiring baby boomers and educate our growing majority-minority nation.

Students like Antoine. Antoine found me in the Southern swelter of 1998. He was desperate for FAFSA help and saw I worked for the “National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.” Antoine needed a FAFSA process that did not distinguish between independent and dependent students. One that used his income tax data. And told him upfront how much his grant award would be, how much money he could borrow and what average payments would look like before deciding where to go to school and what to study. I’m proud to say that Antoine graduated from Howard University and is now paying it forward for the next generation of college students. Antoine overcame his FAFSA obstacles and is achieving remarkable success in life. Read Antoine’s incredible story here.

Our focus should also be on students like Salma. Salma is 16 years old, and her dad has been with my family since the crisp autumn of 2002 when I was enjoying the early days of motherhood and extending nesting to include painting every porous surface in the home. High school juniors like Salma have only the high school counselor (325-to-1 ratio) to help her navigate the first complexities of college: admissions and financial aid. Salma needs to know through a simple app on her phone that her family income automatically qualifies her for a maximum Pell grant so she can confidently choose a public four-year school and enroll full time. Salma shares her story here.

The Gates approach will allow us to give Antoine and Salma the information they need, when they need it. Over the next few months, there will be hand-wringing over costs and procedural considerations about when and how to move FAFSA simplification legislatively. Make no mistake: These are the wily ways of the fox, looking for complexity when straightforward is best. Focusing on the stories of parents and families can help resolve these “inside the Beltway” skirmishes and get financial aid in the hands of more low-income students.