In The News: FAFSA: Ask any college student. The federal student aid application is needlessly complex.

By Kristin D. Hultquist -

Published by The USA Today

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FAFSA: Ask any college student. The federal student aid application is needlessly complex.

By Kim Cook, Kristin Hultquist, Bridget Terry Long and Judith Scott-Clayton

For most families, paying for college means relying on some form of financial aid. Yet last year, 43% of high school seniors didn’t submit the one form required for nearly all types of student aid: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). These students missed out on a stunning $24 billion in money for college.

With more jobs requiring education beyond high school and the ever-rising cost of college and crippling debt, this financial aid is needed now more than ever.

Believe it or not, the biggest barrier to financial aid is the application itself. It is too hard to understand and is not a useful college planning tool. A recent Hechinger Report news story ranked the FAFSA No. 1 among the “most complex and convoluted higher education forms.” Students and families are required to navigate a host of confusing and redundant questions and submit information difficult for many to obtain. And after all that work, students still don’t receive enough information to plan and budget. The complexity of the form not only prevents families from getting the support they need — it has also been shown to prevent students well prepared for college from ever enrolling.

Leaving money on the table

In recent years, FAFSA application rates have been declining — particularly among low-income students and adult students who might need the aid the most.

The good news is the bipartisan FAFSA Simplification Act championed by retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would not only streamline the application process, it would also become a valuable tool in helping students and parents afford college. In addition, the improvements would help the fastest-growing college-going population — adults seeking additional training to keep their jobs or find new employment.

The Senate’s FAFSA Simplification Act of 2019 would fundamentally streamline the financial aid application process by using data students already provide to the IRS and simplifying the formula that determines how much families qualify for. Specifically, the legislation would:

►Cut the number of questions by 80% to include only the most relevant questions.

►Provide Pell Grant tables that help students and parents figure out how much aid they are eligible to receive.

►Allow students from households with annual income below $34,000 to automatically qualify for a full Pell Grant.

►With parents’ consent, automate securely sharing IRS data with the Department of Education, so students don’t have to reenter tax information, adding time and risking unintentional errors.

Changes will have real results

These simple changes will make a world of difference. Students who tested a prototype of a simplified FAFSA completed the application 39% faster with 56% fewer errors. Further, the grant eligibility tables provide valuable and timely information to help students shop for the college that meets their life and career goals. Finding the right match and avoiding unnecessary debt is increasingly important for students.

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Online retailers and apps could never afford for half their users to give up and go away. To keep users engaged and satisfied, retailers and apps test and tweak user experience on a daily basis and provide conveniences like repopulating shipping addresses and suggesting items that match shopping histories.

Congress has an extraordinary opportunity to pass this law to help more Americans take the first step to unlocking billions in federal financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study jobs, as well as aid from states and many colleges.

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We owe it to students and the nation’s future prosperity and talent to have a user-friendly application and valuable tool for students to access affordable college. This legislation has broad bipartisan support and is a commonsense step in strengthening our shared future.

Kim Cook is the executive director of the National College Access Network. Kristin Hultquist is a founding partner of HCM Strategists LLC. Bridget Terry Long is dean and Saris Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Judith Scott-Clayton is an associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Follow them on Twitter: @NCANCook, @kristinHCM and @jscottclayton

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