The Obama administration has announced two important changes to the financial aid application process to make it easier for students and their families to apply for financial aid. Beginning Oct. 1, 2016, college-bound students will be able to begin filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid used to apply for financial aid, instead of waiting until January. In addition, they will be able to use tax information for the previous year (the “prior-prior year,”) rather than be required to use tax information for the current year. It should allow for an easier application process since the tax information is readily available through the Internal Revenue Service tax retrieval tool.
Colleges, universities, and scholarship organizations have already committed to align their schedules with the earlier timeline as well, potentially giving students much more information earlier in the college application process, enabling them to make a more informed choice about what school to attend under less of a time constraint, although it wasn’t disclosed when colleges would inform students.
On a press call today with U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz, and others, Duncan described the FAFSA of several years ago as a “barrier to entry.” Because college access has been a priority of the Obama administration, several changes to the form have been made over the years so that now the FAFSA can be completed in about 20 minutes. The form also uses “skip logic,” allowing families to skip questions that aren’t relevant to them. Using the IRS retrieval tool makes providing the tax information much easier (I have filed the FAFSA at least eight times with my two children).
Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, applauds the changes, which the organization has been calling for since 2007.
“Starting next year, millions more students and parents will be able to transfer their tax data directly into the online Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), eliminating the need to transcribe or estimate answers to up to 20 high-stakes questions,” Asher said in a statement. “Since the tax information is from the IRS, it will not need verification, which reduces paperwork burdens for students and costs for colleges. This also means students can apply for aid when or even before they apply to college, instead of having to wait weeks or months until both the FAFSA and the required tax information become available.
“Because most types of aid require a FAFSA, this change will make it easier for students to meet the many college and state grant deadlines that fall well before taxes are due in April. And for the up to 2 million low-income students who miss out on federal Pell Grants because they don’t complete a FAFSA, this simpler, better timed process could help them get the aid they need to succeed.”
However, it is unknown if even the changes announced today will help truly impoverished students, who would need assistance filing the FAFSA through a community based organization or some other entity such as BridgeEdU (See “Why the Neediest Students Don’t Get Financial Aid”). The Obama administration is calling on Congress to further simplify the form by eliminating up to 30 burdensome, complex questions regarding savings, investments, untaxed income, and more, that apply to few applicants. These questions, required by law, bog down a process that is already onerous to the neediest students.
The Obama administration is continuing to work to make college more accessible and to help students and their families make more informed choices about school. Students should be sure to explore the new College Scorecard, which provides national data on school cost, graduation rates, debt, and post-college earnings—so the students who get aid will attend schools that give them the best chance at actually graduating.