Applying for college financial aid can be a maddening process, and nothing better illustrates the point than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
For those unfamiliar with it, the FAFSA serves as a kind of documental master key that unlocks all manner of student aid. Educational institutions and government agencies (federal and state) require students to fill it out to become eligible for scholarships, grants, and loans, as do many private organizations that provide financial assistance for college. The Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, for instance, requires applicants to complete the FAFSA or the California Dream Act Application.
As students and parents know all too well, the FAFSA is difficult to decipher and navigate. The application is six pages long, and there are another four pages of explanatory text and notes. In addition to standard information about enrollment status and the like, applicants and their parents must supply granular financial and personal data, including bank and investment portfolio balances.
The sheer volume of information requested – there are in excess of 100 questions, some with multiple parts – is daunting, and more than a few queries seem engineered to sow confusion. To give you an idea, here is part one of a nine-part question: “[List] Payments to tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plans (paid directly or withheld from earnings), including, but not limited to, amounts reported on the W-2 forms in Boxes 12a through 12d, codes D, E, F, G, H and S.”
In what surely qualifies as an understatement, USA Today has described the FAFSA as “long, complicated, and opaque.” I would add the words recurrently laborious, as it must be completed anew each year aid is sought. Not surprisingly, Scholarship Foundation advisors spend the bulk of their time assisting new and returning FAFSA applicants.
Recent media coverage has focused on misleading terminology denoting the way FAFSA data are used to determine financial aid packages – the so-called “expected family contribution” – but I think it is fair to say the application’s problems run much deeper.
Help may be on the way. Senators Lamar Alexander and Doug Jones have introduced the FAFSA Simplification Act, which as the name suggests would streamline the application form. It would also eliminate the need for multiple FAFSA filings. As of this writing, the prospects for its passage remain uncertain.
According to government data, California currently ranks 30th in the nation in FAFSA completion. This is a worrying statistic in light of the application’s outsize role in the financial aid process. Last year Louisiana became the first state to require high school seniors to fill out the FAFSA, and it now leads the nation with a completion rate of 78 percent (vs. 54 percent for the Golden State). Perhaps California should consider going that route.
In the meantime, my advice is to begin the FAFSA as early as possible. (It becomes available October 1 each year.) The application and a wealth of supporting information are available online at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa.
A version of this commentary has appeared on Noozhawk.