Tales of families tearing out their hair trying to apply for college financial aid may soon be a thing of the past. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Wednesday several steps to simplify the much-criticized Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The form, which currently asks about 150 questions, is required for federal grants and loans and, in many cases, aid from states and colleges. Applicants next year should see a 20 percent reduction in questions.
"President Obama has challenged the nation to once again have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world," said Secretary Duncan. "To do that, we need to make the college-going process easier and more convenient, and to send a clear message to young people as well as adults that college is within their reach. Simplifying the financial aid process is an important step toward reaching that goal."
Among college students, the government estimates that 1.5 million could be eligible for Pell grants but have not applied, perhaps because of the paperwork.
Starting later this summer, students filling out the online form will be able to skip some questions that don't pertain to them. For instance, married students and people 24 or older will be able to jump past 11 questions used to determine if parental information is needed. By January, low-income students will no longer be asked to supply information about assets, since that does not determine their eligibility for aid.
As part of a pilot project in cooperation with the Internal Revenue Service, students applying for aid for the coming spring semester will be able to automatically retrieve tax information from the IRS to fill in parts of the online FAFSA.
"These are big changes in the right direction, and they indicate an understanding that the form and the process are too complicated," says Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst at the College Board in New York.
Other changes the Obama administration has proposed that would make even more of a difference – possibly cutting the number of questions on the form in half – require congressional approval. They involve changing the eligibility formula to make it less dependent on questions about assets and income that go beyond information gathered for federal tax purposes.
Last fall, the Rethinking Student Aid study group, convened by the College Board and co-chaired by Ms. Baum, proposed that IRS data alone could suffice to determine aid, and that families should be able to supply the previous year's data if they are applying before new tax returns are available.
Some people resist that proposal, Baum says, because they fear giving too much aid to families whose incomes go up in the intervening year. But her group argues that the benefits of simplification outweigh such concerns.
It's not clear if Congress would go so far, but just the fact that the Education Department has forged a limited partnership with the IRS is significant, college-access advocates say.
"Students are not the only ones who will benefit from simplification," says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, in a statement. "Colleges currently spend an estimated $432 million a year verifying the information on completed FAFSAs, including collecting and combing through hard copies of applicants' tax forms. With [automatic data from the] IRS, financial aid offices could spend more time working directly with students and families."