Torrin King, a college-bound senior, was racing through an online student aid questionnaire Tuesday morning in the counseling center at Banneker Senior High School. He clicked through one Web page after another, demonstrating the streamlined federal application as Education Secretary Arne Duncan watched over his shoulder.
"It’s pretty easy to do," the 17-year-old student from Southeast Washington said. "You don’t have to be a specialist. It’s user-friendly." Torrin, who is applying to Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, George Washington University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said his older sister had painful memories of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
"When she did it years ago, she said it was a hassle," he said.
This month, the government is rolling out a shorter, simpler aid application to reduce barriers to higher education, especially for needy students. About 20 million students file the FAFSA, as it is known, each year.
Duncan and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, promoted the revised application in a visit to the school, near Howard University in Northwest Washington.
The application is used to determine a family’s expected annual contribution to college expenses. It also determines eligibility for need-based federal Pell grants and other student aid.
Duncan said FAFSA had been "really, really, really tough" to fill out, making it an obstacle to many students. "It’s crazy," he said.
"Folks are working really hard to make it simpler so it’s not a barrier," Duncan said. He urged the college-bound students to file their aid applications quickly. "If you can get it done this month," he said, "you’ll be in great, great shape to get your share."
Generations of students and their parents have wrestled with the complicated questionnaire. The latest version, taking effect this month for the 2010-11 school year, has 107 questions in its paper form. But government officials are pushing students to apply online to take advantage of the new "skip logic," which suppresses unnecessary questions based on individual answers.
For the first time, low-income students are able to bypass certain questions about financial assets because the information is not required to determine their aid eligibility. Questions about legal residency and previous drug convictions also have been cut for certain applicants.
The number of questions skipped will vary from person to person. Officials provided an example of a hypothetical 17-year-old who receives a reduced-price lunch at school, is not employed, plans to attend college in the fall and lives with two parents who report an adjusted gross income of $45,000: She would have 22 fewer questions.
In addition, officials are testing a system this year that would allow tax-return information to be downloaded straight onto the aid application. In September, the House passed a bill to further simplify the form. It is pending in the Senate.