By Campaign for College Opportunity President Michele Siqueiros
As back-to-school season and the college application period approaches this fall, paying for college remains a concern facing many students and their families.
Even as the value of a college degree grows and more students are prepared and want to go to college, the cost of college is one of the biggest barriers low-income students face. At the Campaign we believe that family income should never keep a talented and hard-working American from the many opportunities possible before them. This is a quintessential American value that we must preserve and it is also why student aid is funded, including the federal Pell Grant, worth up to $5,700 per year for low-income student and Cal Grants, worth between $4,000 and $12,000 per year, depending on the type of institution the student attends. However, the broken process of applying for Pell and Cal Grants inadvertently sets up a new obstacle: a complex, redundant and poorly-timed federal financial aid form that can sometimes be an unnecessary hurdle for California students in need of aid in order to go to college.
In order to help more students make it to and through college—particularly students from low-income backgrounds, and students who are the first in their families to go to college, making it easier to apply for financial aid has to be part of the solution. It is time to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – which determines federal and state aid and loan eligibility – is now.
The unnecessary complexity of the current FAFSA process routinely confuses even school counselors and college financial aid administrators, never mind a student filling out the form for the first time. The FAFSA contains more than 100 questions—only 30 percent of which need to be answered by most students. There are also complex terms—“emancipated minor” is just one example—that lead many students to worry that they filled out the application incorrectly. The redundancy of the FAFSA also forces students to provide information, such as tax returns, that the government already has. And once the form is completed, students and their families often do not find out how much financial aid they are likely to receive until just a few weeks before they must decide whether and where to attend college. We need to make the form easier to complete and give students and their families more time to make the best college decision that takes both academic and financial factors into account. We owe it to students and families to give them at least as much time to select a college as we give colleges to select their students.
Fixing FAFSA to eliminate redundant questions, utilizing tax data already submitted to the IRS, and giving students earlier and more actionable information about their financial aid options as proposed by major organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators is long overdue. These fixes can ensure more students have the opportunity to go to college and succeed while meeting the economic and workforce needs of our nation, and upholding a truly American value, that opportunity is available for all – regardless of your family income. If you agree, voice your support for FAFSA simplification by contacting your local Congress member.
This fall I will begin helping my own niece apply to college and complete the FAFSA. If you have any tips to share, I’m listening.