Commission: Fix the FAFSA

Wick Sloane urges the U.S. higher ed panel to make one simple change that will help needy students more than perhaps any other.

May 18, 2006

Hey! You! On the Spellings Commission. You’re wonking out on us. No squabbling. Enough on white papers.

Vedder!Duderstadt!Vest! You’re missing the easy stuff. Like I told you in Boston: Fix the FAFSA. Can’t you all agree on that one? No greater barrier stands between the poor and a higher education, no greater obstacle, no greater hurdle than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Which students also need for state aid. And private, too.)  

Imagine the headline: “New Form Puts 10,000 More Students In College, With No Increase in Aid Funding.” Impossible? Not even close. I asked a few of my favorite design experts if the nation can fix this FAFSA mess.

“Why not make the FAFSA a pleasurable and welcoming application process?” says Jane Fulton Suri of the design firm Ideo. Ideo blinks at nothing, taking on such problems as new processes to extend the life of kidneys en route to recipients. “You could design FAFSA without any compromise of loan credit and other identity issues. And you'd even make these more enjoyable for the form recipients to process, too."

“Why should someone have to fill out this form at all?” asks Mark Schindler of visual i/o. The firm has clarified complicated subjects from baseball stats to financial markets. “All an applicant should have to do is signal his or her intention to apply for a grant and at most point to the information needed -- tax information, credit history.”  

“The FAFSA seems to be above all a test of visual acuity, recordkeeping ability, transcribing, and fluency in bureaucratic legalese,” Schindler says.  “Anyone filling it out can only say, ‘I have no idea how the machine crunches the data into a meaningful answer about whether I can afford college. If I make the slightest misstep, I am screwed and it could impact the next year or more of my life. I may never know how I messed up.’ ”  

Take a look. Yes, you reading here. Look at the form and come right back.


Who wouldn’t flee that page? Yes, I know. Millions of middle- and upper-class families survive. Those are not the students shut out of the work force for this century. The issue isn’t about Mac or Windows, or cable modems versus dial-up. I asked Mary L. Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College, about the everyday barriers of a typical student. “Students right now are trying to find the $1.25 to take the bus to class today,” she says.  Or deciding between the bus ride and the next meal.  

Consider the opening question from FAFSA for these students. (All gibberish guaranteed accurate, from the actual forms. Remember the Bunker Hill students.)  

Gather the documents you need.

Start with your Social Security number, driver's license, income tax return, bank statements and investment records.

Not handy? OK. Take some of the paperwork home. FAFSA is only online now. Assumes, then, that everyone has a computer and printer handy. Try the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet. 

If you read English, you can locate Spanish versions. Printed out, the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet is eight pages -- that’s six more than the IRS 1040 PDF download.

My favorite FAFSA moment is the second bullet point on Section 1 of the Worksheet, under Student Information:

  • Not all the questions from FAFSA on the Web appear on this worksheet, but questions are generally ordered as they appear online.

This is the Web, not Gutenberg and hand set metal type. Why not revise the Worksheet to match the actual FAFSA?

No mention anywhere of education or any benefits from all this work.  The fifth question for students:  

Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs? A federal law suspends eligibility for some students with drug convictions. Answer “No” if you have no convictions. Also answer “No” if you have a conviction that was not a federal or state conviction. Do not count convictions that have been removed from your record, or that occurred before you turned 18 years old unless you were tried as an adult.

If "Yes," you can complete an interactive e-worksheet when you complete the FAFSA online, or you can print a worksheet at Based on the worksheet question, you will be able to answer whether you are eligible for federal aid when you complete your FAFSA online.

That’s from a left hand column.  Right column under the “Yes” box says, “If you have a conviction for possessing or selling illegal drugs, you should submit your FAFSA anyway. You may be eligible for non-federal aid from state or private sources.”  Remember, the person filling this out has not been to college.  

That’s not all. How about:

Records of untaxed income, such as Social Security benefits, welfare benefits (e.g., TANF), and veterans benefits, for yourself, and your parents if you are providing parent information; non-2006-2006 State Grant recipients in degree programs -- May 1, 2006. All other applicants -- August 1, 2006

“The FAFSA asks for too much information, or perhaps for the wrong type of information, reflecting a systemic point of view that’s cocked,” says Peter Agoos of Agoos D-Zines. “The info really needed is simple: How much do you earn from work? How much do you earn from other sources? How much do you spend for housing, food, transportation, and utilities? How many people do you support? Period.”

My recent FAFSA experience was helping a young student I met through my church this winter. Her parents are hotel workers, slogging, legally, through immigration bureaucracies. No thanks to misinformation spewed from her public high school, Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin, Wheaton College (Mass.) did accept her. No idea about the funding yet. FAFSA and attendant issues for this young woman have so far confounded two lawyers, an M.B.A., and a banker. Plus the minister gathering and re-gathering information and praying.  

The FAFSA site does have a demo. I tried.

To access the demo site, go to The user name is eddemo, and the password is fafsatest. The demo site is available in both English and Spanish.

Next, a barrage of dialogue boxes and flashing signs. Finally settled at:  

FAFSA on the Web has encountered an error. This could be due to normal maintenance. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Select Home Page to return to the FAFSA on the Web main page.

I still don’t know the deadline for the form. The form lists the 33 states that have known deadlines.  Those in other states just need to follow these guidelines:  

Check with the school’s financial aid administrator for these states and territories: AL, *AS, CO, *CT, *FM, GA, *GU, *HI, ID, *MH, *MP, MS, *NE, *NM, *NV, PR, *PW, *SD, *TX, UT, *VA, *VI, *VT, WA, WI, and *WY the U.S. Department of Education.

Terrific grammar. The high school? The state where you want to go to school? Why not one date for a federal form?  

Clicking back to the FAFSA home page, this exhortation transforms to a taunt:

Funds for college are at historic highs.See message from Secretary Spellings.

Is the FAFSA design to keep some people out?  It doesn’t take a Grassy Knoll Theorist to see conspiracies.

“Nobody’s to blame for this kind of mess, but it happens all the time,” an organizational expert, Barry Stein, told me. “Who was asked to do what? The tech guys have their own sense of expertise, they want to show people how good they are and how many features and links you can put in.” He thought for a moment. “Have you read The Mystery of Capital, by Hernando deSoto? It’s about how these systems no one thinks about make it impossible for the poor to get capital. He looks at what we would consider simple transactions.”  

With my iBook and high-speed internet, I saw that the book (Basic Books, 2000) was “Available” at the library down the street. I went.  

Figure 2.1, p. 19: “Procedure to form a legally obtained home in Peru. The procedure consists of 5 stages. The first one alone has 207 steps.”

Commissioners – How many steps for FAFSA? In an information economy, isn’t information capital? And education?

This merciless odyssey begins with the simple Google to Where else would a student begin? Only later, I did find a friendlier site:

What are we, this nation, saying to those students, motivated to go to school, who are deciding right now between the bus to school and dinner?  

What did that cat say? With my iBook and my access and Google, easy to check with Lewis Carroll:   

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don't much care where.
The Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.
Alice: long as I get somewhere.
The Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.


Wick Sloane is chief operating officer at Generon Consulting in Massachusetts and former chief financial officer of the University of Hawaii system.


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