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How Barack Obama Plans to Simplify the FAFSA

Nov 27, 2009 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

Every year, millions of families fill out the FAFSA—or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application is designed to gauge their level of financial need and eligibility for federally funded, low-interest loans as well as Pell grants and other education benefits.

For decades, families have complained that the FAFSA is too long and complicated. It has over 100 questions, and you have to go through approximately thirty screens if you fill out the form online. It’s so complicated that an industry has sprung up around it—you can now hire someone to help you get the most student aid possible while filling out the FAFSA, for a price.  Of course, not everybody can afford that. Some government officials and advocates claim that the complexity of the FAFSA is a barrier to getting aid—especially for the low-income families who most need it.

To combat the problem, the Obama administration announced in June 2009 that it planned to simplify the FAFSA significantly—in order to make it easier for families to apply for and receive government aid for education. Some of the changes will go into effect in January of 2010—and some of the changes are already here. Here are a few ways the government plans to simplify the FAFSA.

You’ll have a shorter application. Starting in January 2010, the application will be shortened by about 20%--if proposed changes go through. Students won’t be required to fill out information that doesn’t apply to them—for instance, students who are married or older than 23 years of age won’t have to fill out any of the eleven questions about their parents’ financial status.  Low income students won’t have to provide information about their family’s assets, such as businesses, cars, and homes.  Men over twenty-six can skip questions about selective service registration. Starting in the summer of 2009, students filling out the application form online can more easily skip questions that are not relevant.

Irrelevant questions will be eliminated

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As it stands now, there are many questions in the FAFSA that in most cases have little influence on students’ eligibility—and the Obama Administration hopes to reduce those questions with the proposed changes. The new FAFSA will only ask you questions that the IRS asks you when you file taxes.  Under these rules, approximately twenty-five questions will be eliminated.

Instant eligibility estimates

This one’s already in effect—starting May 2009, students became able to view an estimate of their eligibility for Pell grants and federally-subsidized student loans online instantly, rather than having to wait weeks for eligibility information to come in the mail.

You can retrieve IRS information

Many of the questions asked on the FAFSA are also asked on your tax forms. Starting in January 2010, students won’t have to fill out this information twice. Instead, they can retrieve IRS information and the online application will fill this information in automatically—saving students time in filling out the form. So far, this feature will only be available to students filling out the form for aid in the spring semester—but the IRS and the government will look into ways they can offer it to all students in the future.

The online application will be easier to navigate

In addition to adding skip-logic allowing students to skip through irrelevant questions, the administration plans to make the online application easier to fill out through improved design. Questions about untaxed income and other financial information will be asked in a check-box format on one page, significantly simplified from the existing design.

As it exists today, the FAFSA may discourage families that need federal help the most from filling out the forms. The Obama Administration hopes to increase the number of families and students who apply for this aid as part of their larger attempt to make college more accessible and affordable to all students. With these changes, hopefully more people will be able to get the aid they need.

6/24/09: White House Press Briefing - Youtube.com


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