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U.S. Department of Education

Students seeking financial aid for college can encounter any number of obstacles to completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The application, which includes more than 100 questions, can be daunting, and students may need assistance answering even basic questions.

And sometimes they just don’t have access to a computer to complete the application.

College-access advocates hope a new mobile student aid app launched by the Education Department this week will remove one barrier to financial aid by allowing applicants to access the FAFSA on their smartphone.

“Students live on their phones, as we all know,” said Sujuan Boutté, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.

Student aid professionals say the biggest measure of the app’s impact will be whether it leads to an increase in the FAFSA completion rate. But they’re also balancing excitement about the app with realism over the challenges still facing many students most in need of federal aid.

The Trump administration announced plans last year to develop the mobile app -- part of a broader overhaul it envisions for the student experience from seeking aid to repaying loans. In a statement heralding the app’s release, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said students will have even greater access to information about colleges they’re applying to and information about their financial future.

The Education Department released an unfinished “beta” version of the myStudentAid app in July. The final version that launched this week lets students navigate the FAFSA one question at a time, allows parents to separately enter their own income information for one or more students and displays College Scorecard data for comparisons of multiple colleges.

“Our ultimate measure will be if we see increase in FAFSA completion,” said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, of assessing the app’s impact. “We hope that a mobile platform is more accessible to students so more students will check out FAFSA and complete it.”

A new report released by the National College Access Network shows that students who need financial support the most to attend college continue to struggle the most with completing the application. The group examined completion rates at the school-district level and found that the greater the share of children living in poverty, the lower the FAFSA completion rate for graduating high school seniors.

Ellie Bruecker, a doctoral student in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin Madison, said she expects higher filing rates for the 2019-20 award cycle, which started Oct. 1. But that’s because of ongoing efforts in local school districts and states like Louisiana, which last year began requiring all high school seniors to complete the application.

“I’d guess you’ll see some schools and their college counselors advertise the app as an easy way to complete the FAFSA, but I think that’s just part of the larger push to get more students to file and will likely happen in schools that are already making these efforts,” she said.

Bruecker said she doesn’t expect the mobile app to move the needle for FAFSA completion among low-income students and students of color -- those who are most in need of federal assistance. Low-income adults and black adults are slightly less likely to own a smartphone, according to Pew data. And Bruecker noted that the FAFSA mobile app so far is only available in English.

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the mobile app is best viewed as one of several steps the Education Department has taken in recent years to incrementally improve the application process.

Earlier, it helped create the IRS data retrieval tool, which allows applicants to automatically import family tax data into their FAFSA application. And in 2016, it moved the beginning of the federal financial aid cycle up two months so that students could start the process earlier in the year.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress on the FAFSA over the last decade,” Draeger said. “This is just another step in the right direction and I totally applaud them for that.”

Boutté of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance said the mobile app is another tool for advisers helping students navigate the financial aid process. She said students and their advocates should keep in mind it’s just the beginning of a process that should include choosing the institution that’s the best fit for them.

“It’s another option, and really, anything that makes the FAFSA more accessible in the minds of our students -- for us, that’s a win,” she said.

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