Shrink The FAFSA? Good Luck With That

Mar 4, 2015
Originally published on March 6, 2015 8:58 am

Look closely.

Buried deep in President Obama's 2016 budget (Page 41) is a proposal to cut up to 30 questions from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

The Obama administration has already done a lot to make the FAFSA easier — if not shorter. Online technology now allows students to skip questions that don't apply to them.

Congress wants to go even further. A bipartisan group of senators has proposed shrinking the FAFSA down — from 108 questions to two.

All of this is good news for students like Arnolda Butcher, a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.

Butcher lives with her older sister and, sitting in a small school office, needs question-by-question help filling out her FAFSA. The help comes courtesy of Margaret Feldman of the Virginia College Advising Corps.

Butcher navigates questions about her citizenship and state of legal residence, but she's stumped by question Number 60. It's about her parents:

What month and year were they divorced?

"I'm gonna have to call," Butcher says, embarrassed.

"Yeah, lots of people don't know that," Feldman assures her. "OK, you wanna use my phone or your phone?"

Butcher's friend, Salay Kamara, has similar trouble with the FAFSA. It's hard to answer questions about your parents, she says, when you don't live with them.

"You need, like, a lot of your parents' information. And sometimes, like, some of us can't get that," says Kamara, who lives with her grandparents.

Butcher gets her father on the phone, but the FAFSA has more questions for him. The conversation gets so complicated, she hands the phone to Feldman.

Forty minutes later, Butcher's finished. But it's hard to imagine her getting there without help. And she's not alone.

One recent study found that, in school year 2011-2012, some 2 million students who would have qualified for federal Pell Grants simply didn't fill out the form — or failed to finish it.

Given the FAFSA's length and politicians' apparent willingness to shorten it, why is it still more than 100 questions?

Well, a FAFSA that is too simple — or doesn't ask all the right questions — could cause a chain reaction that would make the process of applying for financial aid even tougher than it already is.

FAFSA, The Origin Story

Before the FAFSA, a student applying for federal aid began by completing a free paper application at their college of interest.

Dan Madzelan, now at the American Council on Education after decades at the Department of Education, says the process confused students because there was much more to the form than just the section needed to determine federal aid eligibility.

Students could keep going, answering many more questions, to be considered for state and institutional aid.

Here's the problem: If they kept going, they generally had to pay a fee. And some students applying just for federal aid ended up paying unnecessarily.

In 1992, Congress stepped in with the FAFSA. The idea was to create one universal, free application for federal, state and institutional aid.

One form to rule them all.

But, for the idea to work, the federal government had to incorporate lots of questions that various states and schools used to determine aid eligibility.

For example, questions Number 24 and 25 ask about an applicant's parents' highest level of education. But the federal government doesn't need that information. Madzelan says those questions were included at the request of states.

This is why shortening the form is easier said than done.

Nothing's stopping states and schools from going back to the old days of requiring their own applications for student aid. In some ways, that's already happening.

Meet the CSS PROFILE.

Used by more than 350 of the nation's most selective schools to distribute $9.5 billion in institutional aid to undergraduates in 2013-2014, the CSS PROFILE was introduced by the College Board during the 1996-1997 school year as a supplement to the FAFSA.

The CSS PROFILE has almost twice as many questions and requires applicants to provide a comprehensive picture of their finances. It also costs money ($25 for the first institution and $16 for every institution after that).

To be clear, the CSS PROFILE is only used by a small minority of the nation's higher ed institutions. But it — or forms like it — could become much more common if lawmakers shorten the FAFSA, says Justin Draeger of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

The challenge is a real Catch-22: The FAFSA, in its current form, is prohibitively complicated for some students. But shortening it could lead to students having to fill out multiple forms, which would also be prohibitively complicated for some.

One possible fix would depend on a crafty way of shortening the FAFSA — without actually shortening it.

A magic trick, courtesy of the IRS. More on that, later today.

Read part two of our coverage on the FAFSA, "The Magic Trick That Could Shorten The FAFSA."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's shrink it down. That's what President Obama said in January to a crowd of college students in Knoxville, Tenn. He was talking about the free application for federal student aid, known so fondly as the FAFSA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's been a while since I filled it out, but I understand there's more than a hundred questions on it. It just shouldn't be that hard to apply for aid for college.

GREENE: Mr. President, 108 questions, to be exact. And any student who wants help paying for college has to fill it out. In the first of two stories, Cory Turner from the NPR Ed team explains why the FAFSA is so long and why shortening it is a tall order.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Let's start with an origin story. Superman came from Krypton, moments before it exploded. The FAFSA came from 1992, as the college financial aid process was blowing up.

RACHEL FISHMAN: Every institution was sort of doing their own application for financial aid. And that was sort of a mess for students.

TURNER: Rachel Fishman studies ed policy at the New America Foundation. Before the FAFSA, she says, students applying to five different schools might have had to fill out five different aid forms. So Congress stepped in and said if states' colleges and universities would consider dropping their forms for the aid that they give out, the feds would write one good one they could all use - one form to rule them all. Dan Madzelan worked in the Ed Department then.

DAN MADZELAN: They also said that the FAFSA could include data elements that the feds didn't need.

TURNER: Madzelan says it doesn't take 108 questions to decide whether a student should get a Pell grant. But lots of states and schools pushed for more detail, just to make sure they were giving money to kids who needed it. Justin Draeger runs the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

JUSTIN DRAEGER: The more questions we ask, the more equitably we're going to be able to distribute limited financial aid.

TURNER: The deal Congress struck worked - sort of. Most schools don't require an extra aid form, but in fixing one problem, the FAFSA created another. One recent study found that some 2 million students who would qualify for financial aid simply don't fill out the form. For many, that's because it seems so hard.

MARGARET FELDMAN: But if you do put that you're independent, then the schools are going to require a copy of that court documentation that says you're independent.

SALAY KAMARA: So I can't start all over again? I can't start all over and, like, go back...

FELDMAN: No, but we can go back and update it. You can always make changes.

TURNER: That's Margaret Feldman talking with 18-year-old Salay Kamara. Feldman works for the Virginia College Advising Corps in a small office at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. Kamara and her friend, Arnolda Butcher, have dropped in for help filling out the FAFSA. Butcher lives with an older sister. Kamara lives with her grandparents. And both are having trouble with the form. Here's Kamara.

KAMARA: You need, like, a lot of your parents' information. And sometimes, like, some of us can't get that.

TURNER: Butcher works on her FAFSA with Feldman, and she makes it just a few questions in before she's stumped. When did her parents get divorced?

ARNOLDA BUTCHER: I'm going to have to call.

FELDMAN: Yeah, lots of people don't know that. OK, you want to use my phone or your phone?

TURNER: Butcher calls her father. But answering the rest of the FAFSA's questions gets so complicated she hands the phone to Feldman.

FELDMAN: Right, so this form that she's filling out is a federal financial aid form for her to get money to help pay for college.

TURNER: Butcher finishes in under 40 minutes. But it's not clear she would have gotten there without Feldman's help. This is why President Obama and lots of other politicians are talking about shrinking the form. But it's not that simple. Make it too long, and many students won't fill it out. But make it too short, and many places could go back to requiring their own forms. One possible fix would depend on a crafty way of shortening the FAFSA without actually shortening it - a magic trick courtesy of the IRS. I'll explain that later today on All Things Considered. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.