FAFSA: Opportunity and Obfuscation

Can a key process be improved?

January 8, 2015
The FAFSA is complicated and it needs to be simplified

It's a new year and that means it's time for another year of FAFSA applications. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is what helped me qualify for student loans / financial aid when I went to college and it will do the same for thousands of students this year.

Perhaps of most importance for individuals who complete the FAFSA is the EFC or "Expected Family Contribution" index number. The lower your EFC, the more aid you will receive. My EFC "back in the day" was zero. This meant that I was awarded a Pell grant as well as a subsidized loan. For some students, their EFC will be rather high due to the financial standing of their parents. Unfortunately, this can have tremendous consequences for students who don't actually receive any funds from their parents. It's an annual struggle that punctuates just one of myriad issues with the current state of the financial aid system in the United States. The FAFSA is an obfuscated gateway to opportunity.

Having recently completed a rather arduous array of applications for a foreign government, I have empathy for those who will be filling out their FAFSA. As my wife so insightfully stated, "forms are rarely as important to their creators as they are to those whose lives are impacted by the contents of the document." Why are the forms/applications that are the most important to our lives usually the most complex, confusing, and confounding?

The web-based version of the FAFSA uses skip logic and can even autofill IRS information. However, it's still a complex document. The 2014-2015 "How to complete the FAFSA" PDF was 72 pages in length! With 100 questions, the FAFSA (like most government forms) could best be described as being unfriendly to humans. Plus, procrastination, one of our nation's favorite pastimes, means that a lot of FAFSA applicants will wait until the last minute to complete and submit their information. And, let's not forget that most people will not have access to the required IRS information for the FAFSA in January. I can recall having several conversations with my parents about this issue...in 1995!

The FAFSA unlocks access to higher education for countless individuals. Oftentimes, it determines eligibility for learning and future employment opportunities. It is that important.

How would you change the FAFSA process? How does your school assist students with high EFCs who don't actually receive monetary benefit from their families?


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