Why the Neediest Students Don’t Get Financial Aid

Is the FAFSA a tool of access or a barrier?

(Image: BridgeEdU)

When Mitchell Generette filed the FAFSA as part of his application to the University of Baltimore, he thought he had completed it successfully. Now a 24-year-old rising sophomore at UB, Generette had previously been a student at St. Mary’s College, but left after two years without attaining a degree. “I ended up owing St. Mary’s $14,000,” he says. His financial aid package had included loans, but despite receiving loan counseling, he didn’t fully grasp that there could be dire consequences if he didn’t attend to his loan debt. “I didn’t know much about it. I saw the mail but didn’t open it. I had a son and knew I didn’t have the money, so I just didn’t deal with it.”

[Related: 10 Online Resources to Help You Help Your Child]

Unfortunately, Generette’s loan had gone into default, delaying the processing of his FAFSA at UB. As a member of the inaugural cohort at BridgeEdU (see “A New Class of Freshmen,” BE Smart, April 2015), Generette worked closely with Financial Aid Adviser Ellen Frishberg who, along with other advisers, supports BridgeEdU students in their FAFSA process from application through disbursement. She says it isn’t unusual for students who have received loan counseling to still not fully appreciate what they’re told. “The implications of ‘If you don’t pay for this, you’ll never get financial aid again and you won’t ever go back to school’—I don’t think that’s clear to students,” Frishberg says. “We were able to resolve Mitchell’s default without payment, just by knowing the rules, which is something most students wouldn’t know how to do,” Frishberg says.

But that was not the end of Generette’s FAFSA problems. It was only the beginning.

The fundamental goal of student aid is to help more students attend college and graduate from college. Yet, low income students who need aid the most are often stymied by the FAFSA. According to Mark Kantrowitz of Edvisors.com; a site that provides information about paying for college, and author of Filing the FAFSA (Edvisors Network; $9.95), about 2 million students do not file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid every year. In 2011–2012, the most recent year for which data is available, many of them would have qualified for federal Pell grants, money that does not have to be paid back, totaling as much as $9.5 billion (nearly $5,000 each) if they had filed. In other words, the neediest students are not filing the FAFSA and are not getting the aid they’re eligible for.

Filing the FAFSA is not complicated if English is your first language, you live a fairly stable life, and you have a responsible parent who can help you or, better yet, do it for you. Also, the Obama administration has made changes to the FAFSA that has made filing it easier and faster. It now takes only about 30 minutes to complete instead of an hour or more. As a result, FAFSA filings have gone up nearly 30% since President Obama took office: 21.2 million students successfully filed the FAFSA in 2013–2014 versus 16.4 million students in 2008–2009. However, if you’re among the neediest students, it could literally take the entire school year for your funding to come through.

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8 Responses to Why the Neediest Students Don’t Get Financial Aid

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  3. zoobee says:

    Obama has done exactly nothing to help with the FAFSA. The reason that FAFSA is easier now is due to enhanced skip logic and the IRS data retrieval tool that were products of the NASFAA organization working directly with the Department of Education and the IRS. Regarding the increase in students completing the FAFSA, due to the recession there was an increase in people returning to school. More people in college = more FAFSA completion. To the administration’s credit, they have been pushing out more information on student aid and FAFSA completion as well, which helps the numbers, but again, nothing to do with FAFSA simplification.

    What Obama has done is make the process even more complex than it needs to be. He added complicated dependency questions to the FAFSA. The Verification process you speak of in your article: Prior to Obama it was one verification category, and we could accept signed 1040s from the student/parent. Now, there are four verification categories, all with different requirements (actually there are six but two of them are no longer in use as of 1516), and the student/parent is required to either use the IRS data retrieval tool on the FAFSA or submit a line by line transcript from the IRS, which could take weeks to obtain, and even longer if you are a victim of identity theft or owe the IRS money.

    If you are homeless, you can apply for a Professional Judgment and not be required to submit your parent information. That sounds like a failure of the school’s financial aid office to advise the student, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the FAFSA.

    Also, you clearly have no idea how the FAFSA works. You don’t file “as independent”. There are dependency questions on the FAFSA which determine your dependency. Age is only one of them. In your example, the student had kids that he was provided more than half of their total financial support to, then he doesn’t need to prove homelessness. He is already independent per one of the other FAFSA dependency questions.

    You made it sound like the school chooses to verify 30% of their applications. This is incorrect. The DOE selects students for verification, and 30% of applications is about the average. The school is then required to verify that 30%. They can choose to verify more than 30%, so there are some that do verify 100%, but they are small in number for obvious reasons.

    Low income students are the ones mostly selected for verification because Obama changed the criteria of selection to target students with high family sizes and low incomes. Not only that, they are typically put in category V6, which means they have to submit additional documentation on top of the standard verification items, not just proving their income but also detailing how they support their family and having to submit W2 forms, which is not required for the other verification categories.

    On top of that, the administration lowered the amount of assets that can be excluded in the calculation in 1617 to about half of what it was in 1516.

    Simplifying the FAFSA does not reduce the burden of verification either, unless they also change the verification selection criteria or requirements. They are two separate items.

    Default flags also have absolutely nothing to do with FAFSA simplification. The federal rules indicate that a student in default on federal aid cannot receive more federal Title IV aid until the default is cleared.

    Taking 5 months to get your financial aid in your example was a product of a default that had to be rehabilitated, verification that was made more complicated for poor people thanks to Obama, and the student earning his income through self employment, which probably resulted in him having to file taxes. It, once again, had nothing to do with FAFSA simplification.

    Please do better research prior to publishing an article next time.

    Thank you.

    • DesertDweller79 says:

      Yes, the barriers to higher education are definitely real for low income and minority students. No one will dispute this.

      However, simplifying the FAFSA isn’t going to solve the problem. In the case described in this article, the student was asked to get out of loan default and verify his independent status. Even if the FAFSA were simpler, he would have still had to do this. The university would still need the documentation. So, while the FAFSA may have been easier, the accompanying verification process would be just as stringent, or even more complex due to the now lack of information on the FAFSA.

      All those students who don’t re-submit the FAFSA due to missing data are not going to be helped by a simpler FAFSA. Their FAFSA may be processed just fine. However, the colleges will then have to make the students fill out additional verification documents to provide all the information the FAFSA is now missing. Colleges are still going to need the information.

      With the skip logic that now exists on the FAFSA, I believe it is probably EASIER to fill out for low income students, because they will never even be asked some of the more complicated asset questions.

      I would still like to see more low income students complete the FAFSA. Better high school counseling and outreach from local colleges and universities would be great step.

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