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We Can Make College Affordable

A new Federal Student Aid application (FAFSA) process has delayed and frustrated students and families. But, a longtime university president advises, it could mean more help for more Americans to get their degrees

We Can Make College Affordable

A new Federal Student Aid application (FAFSA) process has delayed and frustrated students and families. But, a longtime university president advises, it could mean more help for more Americans to get their degrees

Prospective college students know that the acronym FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If they have adequate college counseling, they also know that it’s essential to fill out and submit this form, no matter what their financial situation or cultural circumstances.

FAFSA is used for more than federal and state grants and loans. It is referenced for most scholarship awards and other purposes. Some 17 million students apply each year. Some states, including New Jersey, require that high school students complete the FAFSA — something I have recommended Pennsylvania should do as well.

Making FAFSA a requirement will help students whose families may be reluctant to disclose financial information or otherwise to assist in the college application process. In Liz Moore’s novel, Long Bright River (set in Philly), we find a fictional example of this problem. After a brief meeting with her public high school guidance counselor, the main character, Mickey Fitzpatrick, a high-achieving student who wants to be a history teacher, has brought a stack of FAFSA material to her grandmother, who is her guardian, to fill out. Here is what the grandmother says:

Can you imagine? Kid like you at St. Joe’s? You barely talk, Mickey. They’ll take your money and spit you out on the sidewalk. They’ll have a laugh at your expense and then get rid of you. That’s what they’ll do. And if you think you’ll ever see a return on that investment, well. I’ve got a bridge to sell you … I’m not filling that out, she said, nodding at the financial aid forms. I won’t help you dig yourself into debt for some useless piece of paper at the end of it.

The scene may be fictional, but it rings true, as I can attest from 24 years as a public university president. Many families have little understanding of the FAFSA form. They assume it covers loans only when it actually opens access to state and federal grants — money that does not have to be paid back. The current situation of FAFSA turmoil is making the matter worse.

This year FAFSA has undergone much-needed revisions leading to myriad difficulties in accessing the form and filling it out. Colleges and universities will not receive information from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) on students’ FAFSA allocations until mid-March. Most students are unlikely to have financial aid offers until April. Given these circumstances, May 1, known as College Decision Day at many institutions, should be postponed. (The American Council on Education (ACE) publishes an ongoing list of institutions that are delaying deadlines.)

Pennsylvania schools that have already announced delays in deadlines include the PASSHE schools (PA State System of Higher Education), Penn State, and Widener University. Many other PA colleges have open or rolling admission deadlines. College applicants should stay in close touch with financial aid offices, and these offices should be as helpful as possible in the midst of uncertainty and confusion. The Temple Promise has already eased anxiety for Philadelphia families whose adjusted gross income is $65,000 or less. For those families tuition and fees at Temple will be free.

A simple FAFSA process is the ticket to ride.

The FAFSA form desperately needed a major overhaul. The 108 questions on the old form have been reduced to approximately 36. Much of the information can now be pulled directly from income tax returns. The U. S. Congress granted the DOE a three-year period to implement massive changes in both the form and the technology supporting it. But Congress provided no additional funds. At the same time the FAFSA revision was underway, DOE was working on numerous loan forgiveness efforts. As The New York Times reports, “Big ambitions and limited resources most likely contributed to the problems we’re seeing now.”

In other words, no good deed goes unpunished. With FAFSA, as with so much else in this society, people unjustly castigate government agencies as bloated bureaucracies and deny them the funds needed to serve the public good. On the FAFSA complications and delays, I advise patience for applicants and personal outreach from colleges and universities.

It’s particularly important for colleges to communicate directly with low-income families and students whose parents do not have Social Security numbers. DOE has promised remedies for the Ssocial Ssecurity problem, which affects U.S. citizens who are the children of at least one undocumented parent. It’s never been more important for financial aid officers to be counselors.

The new FAFSA will reduce verification delays

When students enter college in the fall, Better FAFSA, as it is called, will result in one vast improvement for financial aid recipients. The dreaded process of verification will be at the lowest rate ever. In my experience, before the reforms, large numbers of low-income students could not immediately access the grants they were assigned because they were targeted for onerous further documentation. The financial aid professionals at the universities I led could never figure out why some students were oppressed with delays and others were not. One thing was for sure: We lost fully qualified students in the process. We did everything we could for those being verified: We allowed course registration, put needed textbooks on library reserve, even opened access to emergency funds. Nonetheless, some students simply threw up their hands in despair and left higher education, maybe forever.

Since Better FAFSA is connected directly to tax information from the Internal Revenue Service, the Chronicle of Higher Education quotes a senior DOE official as follows: “We are going to bring verification rates to among their lowest ever, as we try to balance the need to protect taxpayers against fraud while also freeing up opportunities for colleges and universities to work with students.”

What would be an even better reform

Education writers Jim Blew and Art Hauptman suggest a streamlined approach to financial aid that would simply ask families to give the Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) permission to share their income tax submissions. FAFSA applicants already give this permission so that certain fields on the form can be pre-populated with IRS information. They still have to respond to numerous questions, which Blew and Hauptman argue might not be needed to estimate how much families are able to contribute to college costs.

In this reform, “Students from families who do not file federal income taxes and are eligible to receive public support such as Medicaid or food stamps would be automatically eligible for the maximum Pell Grant (currently about $7,400 per year).”

This plan would reduce bureaucracy, make optimal use of federal employees in both DOE and IRS, and simplify the procedure for families. Given the long, contentious Congressional process that has resulted in Better FAFSA, I suppose we can dream on about this intelligent reform.

What we can do

    • Encourage college applicants to fill out the FAFSA form and to be patient with glitches.
    • Call on PA legislators to make filling out the FAFSA a requirement for high school graduation.
    • Urge colleges and universities to adequately staff their offices of Financial Aid with professionals who see themselves as counselors.
    • Check to see what your alma mater is doing to help students navigate the FAFSA fiasco. Are they specifically reaching out to low-income families? Are they sending employees, with laptops ready, into the community — to places of worship, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc. — to assist families in filling out FAFSA?
    • Support hiring more high school guidance counselors in Philadelphia schools.
    • Petition Congress for further reforms in FAFSA applications.

Democracy depends on an educated population. U.S. policy must do everything possible to ensure that underserved communities have access to higher education. A simple FAFSA process is the ticket to ride.

Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on X.


Header photo: Swarthmore College graduation

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