Today’s FAFSA for Tomorrow’s Student

As relatively recent college graduates, we are both painfully familiar with the challenges of financing an education. Specifically, the challenges of using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a means of making college access shift from a dream to a reality.

Although both of us overcame barriers to college access and successfully completed our degrees, this college story is not the reality for many students. While the complexity of the FAFSA is often a barrier to pursuing higher education, with recent progress, some students are beginning to see better support as they navigate the process to access federal student financial aid.

Like many students, we encountered different college admissions processes. One of us experienced college admissions through the lens of a first-generation student, learning about the college process in truly a trial-by-fire way. The other was the daughter of a first-generation student, who spent time in her school’s college admissions office working closely with prospective students.

Students may be missing out on financial aid

With the cost of college on the rise and the brunt of that cost falling increasingly on students and their families, completing the FAFSA is proving more important than ever. According to The College Board, the average annual price of tuition (adjusted for inflation) increased at a rate of 3.2% for public colleges and 2.7% for private colleges between 2007 and 2018. Consequently, students are increasingly crippled by taking on student debt – challenging many to call into question the ROI of higher education.

However, for many students, the first hurdle to college access is simply learning that financial aid exists, and that processes like the FAFSA are in place to help students capitalize on resources that may be available to them. According to a survey by the National College Access Network, many students who fail to apply for aid with the FAFSA simply do not understand what the concept of “financial aid” is and the opportunities it affords them. Students and families who lack this information are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds and schools with fewer resources, leading to a significant information gap in student awareness.

In 2014 and 2017, NerdWallet found that students missed out on $2.7 billion and $2.3 billion worth of free college aid, respectively. During the 2016-2017 academic year, over 1.2 million students failed to fill out the FAFSA and an estimated 648,000 could have been eligible for Pell Grants. With increasing skills gaps and the need for educated, well-trained employees, these numbers indicate that an alarmingly high number of students may be missing out on the opportunity to get a post-degree, simply due to a lack of information.

Not only does general access pose a concern, but the actual FAFSA form complicates the process and serves as a barrier for many. With 100 questions and terms such as “emancipated minor,” the form can be difficult to understand for many first-time applicants. In fact, nearly a third of the questions are completed by only 1% of applicants due to their complexity.

Understanding the needs of today’s students

As recently explained by NPR, the image of the average college student being fresh out of high school, tossing around the Frisbee and drinking Friday afternoon beers is often an inaccurate depiction. Today, 1-in-4 of the nearly 17 million Americans enrolled in undergraduate higher education cares for a child, roughly half do not receive financial support from their parents and 44 percent have parents that have never completed a bachelor’s degree. These numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics frame today’s student in a new lens and underscore the importance of ensuring that when evaluating how a student approaches the FAFSA, he or she has the ability and support to factor those cost of living expenses into a financial aid package.

However, with all things said, the FAFSA has made some strides in the past year to make the platform more accessible. First, the application in now open in October instead of January, allowing students more time to fill out the form and get all the required documents in order. Second, families can now use their “prior-prior year” tax information to complete the FAFSA instead of the prior year’s information and can access the import the data directly from the IRS through a new Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). This allows individuals to file the FAFSA before filing their previous year’s taxes. Third, as awareness and concern has increased around the FAFSA’s accessibility, the federal government launched an app to help families and students navigate the complicated FAFSA process.

Though improvements have been made to the application process, the FAFSA continues to act as a barrier for thousands of students. However, recent updates indicate that there is movement and awareness around increasing access for future students – an exciting step towards continuing to open the door to education for more students across the country.

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