NAICU Washington Update

A Slimmer, Spiffier Look for FAFSA

January 08, 2010

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, accompanied by Jill Biden, released a new, more streamlined Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) January 1, highlighting the administration's serious commitment to simplifying the aid application process.  Secretary Spellings also had made FAFSA simplification a federal goal in her last years in office, garnering strong bi-partisan support.

The most recent changes follow improvements made last summer.  The on-line form now uses "smart technology," so that questions not applicable to certain students disappear from their application.  For example, low-income students won't be asked about assets.  Other examples of changes include:

  • Only applicants who have changed addresses within the past five years will be asked about their state and date of legal residency.
  • Only returning students will be asked about prior drug convictions.
  • There will be no questions regarding veterans' benefits.
  • Some questions can now be completed by check boxes.

Later this month, students applying for spring semester aid (2009-10 FAFSA) will be able to import tax data from the IRS.  By summer, students applying for 2010-11 aid will also be able to import tax data to the FAFSA.

Background and Earlier Changes

For many years, experts have claimed that the FAFSA's complexity has been a barrier to college attendance by low-income and minority students.

Recommendations for streamlining the process have been made by such varied groups as the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (ACFSA), The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), the College Board, and the Spellings Commission.  In response, Congress and the Department of Education have taken steps to improve the process, and they continue working on changes presenting technical and political challenges.

Initial steps toward simplification in 2007 and 2008 were a particular interest of Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), now President Obama's Chief of Staff.  Also a key player in some of the more innovative approaches to simplifying the form is Bob Shireman, formerly head of TICAS and a member of the ACSFA panel. He's now deputy undersecretary at the Department of Education.

Further simplification could be ahead as Congress considers more adjustments to the Higher Education Act's need analysis formula to allow even fewer questions.  Among the key questions being debated is whether to remove all assets from the formula.

While simplification is a hot political topic, some policy analysts continue to have some reservations.  If the federal government goes too far and removes too many questions, they fear, too many people who have the means to pay for their college education could end up with too much aid.  This would add further cost pressures to the Pell Grant program.

There also are concerns that states or individual colleges may find the FAFSA doesn't provide enough information to allow them to determine how to award their own scholarship money.  NAICU explored this concern last fall in a survey on some of the proposed changes currently being considered by Congress.

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