Timing and complexity of FAFSA deters applicants

April 29, 2015

Over the past few decades, the college application process has changed drastically. In the big picture, applying for financial aid has remained a burden for everyone and has not gotten easier over time. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) remains the single most important financial-aid application form that students must fill out to qualify for student aid, scholarships, and loans. However, over two million students across the nation eligible for a grant fail to complete a FAFSA annually. Over a million of those students would have qualified for grants, leaving more than $750 million behind in unclaimed federal aid. Only in Rhode Island and Massachusetts did six out of ten graduating high school students complete a FAFSA, the highest ratio in the country. 24 states had completion rates 40-49%, and four states (Arizona, Utah, Alaska, and Vermont) had completion rates under 40%. Nationally, the FAFSA completion rate averages at 55%.

Anyone can guess why students would forfeit the chance to reduce their college costs by failing to fill out a form that serves as the portal to all student financial aid. Educators, financial aid administrators, and others familiar with FAFSA know how much of an obstacle filling out the form poses for both students and administrators. Students may feel overwhelmed with the length and complicated questions in the FAFSA, which leads to the bad timing of submissions. Students end up applying for aid after they have applied for college already, so they do not know how much aid they qualify for when deciding what college to apply to.

Educators have proposed changing the income data required from the previous year to the last two years, doubling the period of the required data. This produces a more accurate qualification for aid since it can better determine a family’s financial status over time. A family’s income tends to rise from one year to the next, and this information can potentially increase the amount of aid that a student can qualify for. This proposed change, along with simplifying the questions asked on the FAFSA, may encourage more high school students to apply for financial aid.

Financial aid administrators do not have it much easier either. On the other side of the FAFSA, financial aid administrators face a handful of issues that impede their ability to process forms in a more timely manner. While the amount of applications increase annually, the amount of financial aid workers remains fairly constant, if not declining. Financial aid departments have not received any budget increases over time either, so they have less to award. Along with no budget increases, financial aid departments continue to work with outdated financial aid software that runs slow and cannot compute multiple actions simultaneously.

Source: http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20150426/NEWS/150429386/14111