January 26, 2010

On Reformed FAFSA Form, Students Face Fewer Questions

Print More

Approximately 20 million American students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid every year to receive federal financial aid. Yet the form, which until last year included 136 questions, was often associated more with confusing questions and encumbering minutiae than with a convenient path to aid.

It was “more complex than IRS tax returns,” said Tom Keane, Cornell’s director of financial aid for policy analysis and scholarships.

To address these complaints and to enable more students to apply, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, announced the implementation of a new, streamlined FAFSA form earlier this month.

The form — 28 percent shorter than its predecessor — can be completed in about an hour due to an innovative technology called “skip logic,” which personalizes a respondent’s application by taking into account their unique demographic information and bypassing questions that don’t apply to the applicant.

FAFSA has 22 fewer questions and 17 fewer web screens than before, eliminating questions about drug convictions and veterans’ benefits. It also removed questions about legal residency for applicants who have lived at the same address for more than five years.

Many expect the FAFSA form to be further shortened by the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, a financial reform bill that is currently making its way through Congress. A draft of this bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September, and is expected to come up in the Senate soon.

Duncan played up the significance of the change to the Washington News Observer, calling the improvements to the FAFSA form a “dramatic breakthrough” for students “who have worked hard all their lives … to fulfill their dreams.”

“In Chicago … the single biggest factor stopping eligible students from going to college was, literally, the FAFSA form,” Duncan said.

The national United States Student Association also trumpeted the reform of FAFSA, with USSA President Gregory Cendana calling it a “great step forward” for education reform.

Some students who have filled out the new FAFSA, however, expressed indifference to the modifications.

“It was a little easier, I guess,” Anna Fowler ’11 said. She added that, although somewhat helpful, FAFSA “doesn’t do that much for me,” and that there are still a lot of “unnecessary … political loop holes and ins and outs.”

Laura Krull ’12 admitted that she didn’t know there was a new version of the form. Though she added, “my dad filled it out [and] he said it was a pain in the ass [as it] has always been.”

Still, most interviewed praised the Department of Education’s efforts to improve the application.

“Shorter sounds good,” Fil Eden ’10 said, though he admitted not filling out the form yet. He added that, beyond making his personal life easier, he thought streamlining FAFSA would help promote social mobility by removing a barrier to getting a good education.

Another welcome change of the new FAFSA was the removal of the question relating to previous drug convictions. Perhaps surprisingly, the decision to withdraw the question has remained uncontroversial.

Exclusion from federal aid for a single drug offense was “very draconian,” Michael Schillawski ’10, president of the Cornell Democrats, said.

In a rare feat for either side, Konstantin Drabkin ’11, president of the Cornell Republicans, agreed with Schillawski. If someone “shows such a strong commitment to getting his life on the right track, we should be congratulating them, not putting obstacles in his path,” Drabkin said.

Drabkin also supported streamlining FAFSA, calling the move “great” and saying that “everyone should be encouraged to succed and pursue higher education.”

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act currently working its way through the Senate holds the promise for further reform and reduction of the FAFSA form. According to the USSA, if passed, this law would remove questions about a family’s assets from the FAFSA form.

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Konstantin Drabkin’s class year. The original story incorrectly cited him as a senior.

Original Author: Jeff Stein