The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an important tool for students to access federal, state, and institutional aid. Congressional efforts to simplify the questions on the form are welcome, but eliminating the form altogether will lead states and colleges to require students to fill out supplemental aid forms, making the overall system more, not less, complicated for families.

FAFSA Simplification: Proponents of simplifying the FAFSA application process argue that limiting the questions on the FAFSA would eliminate a barrier to access. While removing barriers to access is desirable, the details of the various simplification proposals do matter. Many proposals seem appealing at first glance, but upon further review are found to fall short in addressing financial aid objectives. It is critical that efforts towards simplification do not cause unintended distortions, favor certain sectors or students over others, lead to the proliferation of multiple state or institutional aid forms, or facilitate fraud in the allocation of aid or its delivery.

Prior, prior year (PPY): Starting with the 2017-18 school year, the federal government will use PPY income data to determine federal financial aid eligibility. The FAFSA moved forward and became available on October 1, 2016.  The change means that students and families will know what their federal student aid is sooner.  The date change may present some hurdles for states and institutions whose student aid budgets are determined later in the academic year, and require financial aid packaging procedures to be revised. In addition, Democratic Members of Congress have expressed concern that moving up applications for state and institutional aid may disadvantage low-income students. 


Eligibility for federal student aid is determined on the basis of information provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Simplification of the FAFSA is being vigorously advocated by a variety of groups as a means to facilitate access to higher education and/or to reduce administrative burden in obtaining financial aid. The potential federal costs and the varying impact on different groups of students also come into play in evaluating changes to processes for determining aid eligibility.

Approaches to FAFSA Simplification

Administration: President Obama raised the idea of reducing the information required on the FAFSA in a 2009 statement, and included a proposal for doing so in his 2016 Budget Proposal. In addition, just prior to leaving office, President Bush provided Congress with a report on FAFSA simplification that had been required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.


Congress: Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has proposed reducing the FAFSA to two questions: Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and family size. [S. 108]



  • The Gates Foundation has funded work on various student aid topics and issued its recommendations on FAFSA simplification in July 2015.
  • A National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) working group has recommended a tiered approach based on financial strength, known as Three Pathways. It attempts to balance simplicity with the need for more detailed information for families with more complex financial situations.


What You Can Do

  • Be prepared to explain to your elected officials that simplification must be done carefully if it is to truly benefit students.
  • Emphasize the need for balance. Reducing the form to only two questions--for example—might seem simpler. However, doing so is likely to result in students’ having to fill out additional forms since many states and institutions rely on the current FAFSA information to award their aid.
  • Assess what questions might be eliminated from the FAFSA without interfering with the awarding of your state or institutional aid.

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