The Big Test Before College? The Financial Aid Form

Most everyone agrees that something is very wrong with the six-page federal form for families seeking help with college costs.
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Created in 1992 to simplify applying for financial aid, it has become so intimidating — with more than 100 questions — that critics say it scares off the very families most in need, preventing some teenagers from going to college.

Then, too, some families have begun paying for professional help with the form, known as the Fafsa,a situation that experts say indicates just how far awry the whole process has gone.

“We’re getting thousands of calls a day,” said Craig V. Carroll, chief executive of Student Financial Aid Services Inc., whose charges $80 to $100 to fill out the form. “Our calls for the month of January are up about 35 percent from last year. There’s been a huge increase in the desperation of families.”

Last year, Congress ordered the form streamlined, but in the very same bill it added seven new questions. Critics say that even when all those questions are answered, the form does a poor job of assessing financial worth, both because it excludes assets like cars, boats, the family home and some family businesses, and because it does not factor in the high cost of living in areas like New York.

On the campaign trail, President Obama promised to eliminate the form — officially, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, talked about the problem at his confirmation hearing, saying, “You basically have to have a Ph.D. to figure that thing out.”

But whether it will be replaced soon, and with what, remains an open question.

Between the recession and the rising cost of college, more families than ever are filing the forms this year, their first step toward Pell grants, Stafford loans, Perkins loans, work-study programs and much state aid. As of Feb. 15, the Department of Education had already received 2,213,408 forms, 20 percent more than at this time last year.

Some researchers have found that the form could be drastically simplified without any great impact on students’ aid eligibility. But experts warn that if the form becomes too simple, some states and universities might create new forms to get additional information.

“In the long run, I think the Fafsa will get easier,” said Lauren Asher, acting president of the Institute for College Access and Success. “But not this year.”

The Department of Education is considering two approaches to simplifying the form, said Robert Shireman, founder of the institute and currently a consultant to Mr. Duncan. One, proposed by former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in a Jan. 16 letter to Congress, would cut out most financial questions, asking only for adjusted gross income and the number of tax exemptions. Her sample form is two pages and has fewer than 30 questions. (The current form, with accompanying instructions, has more than five times as many words as this article.)

The other approach, favored by Ms. Asher and others, would let taxpayers direct the Internal Revenue Service to share information from their tax returns with the Education Department.

“It’s not yet been decided which way to go,” Mr. Shireman said. “One way is simple, using very few data elements, and the question is whether that’s enough. The other approach gets a little more data, but has the drawback that not everyone files taxes, especially lower-income people. And it raises some timing questions, since the Fafsa starts in January, and the information the I.R.S. has at that point is from the prior tax year.”

While some pilot projects may be ready for next year’s application season, he said, transforming the whole system will not be that quick, particularly since some changes would require Congressional action.

“One thing we will have, by August, is a Government Accountability Office analysis of the effects of the different options,” Mr. Shireman said.

The form becomes available each year on Jan. 1, and counselors urge families to file early because some aid is first come first served.

Free help for filing is widely available, from the Education Department, counselors and workshops like College Goal Sunday offering line-by-line guidance.

“It’s daunting,” said Janette Logan, a Connecticut mother who had her daughter, Kate Brown, in tow recently at College Goal Sunday at Norwalk Community College. “Kate met her deadlines in applying for college, and now this is mine.”

But after about an hour in the computer room, Ms. Logan realized that she did not have all the necessary information, so she and her daughter left without submitting the form. As the afternoon wore on, many families drifted away without finishing.

“I didn’t bring everything I need, but at least I know what to do now,” said Gary Curto, who had researched the form on the Internet, landed at, assumed it was the official government site and nearly paid for help.

“I was just about to pay, but my wife knew it was supposed to be free,” he said.

But Brigid Duffy, a mother of four in Lynn, Mass., decided the help was worth the cost.

“I know it sounds silly, but what appealed to me was that you could be done in 20 minutes,” said Ms. Duffy, who used for her son Griffin’s form. “I’d done the Fafsa myself in the past, for my 22-year-old, and it took five or six hours. It’s not fun.”

Without help, however, many give up. “Students who would be eligible for aid see how complex the form is, get what I call ‘form fright’ and just stop,” said Pat Watkins, director of financial aid at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Many affluent families now use high-priced financial advisers to maximize their eligibility for financial aid. Kalman A. Chany, the president of Campus Consultants Inc., attracts many families to his $1,450 service through financial aid presentations for parents at dozens of New York schools, including Dalton, Horace Mann and Brooklyn Tech.

“We’ve had a lot more people sign up this year, especially since October,” said Mr. Chany, whose clients’ children often apply to private colleges that require both the Fafsa and an even more detailed form, the College Board’s CSS Profile.

“We’re not like the services that just take the data and put it on the form,” said Mr. Chany, author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke.” “We analyze the clients’ situation and then tell them, ‘If you change this, your financial aid picture could be different.’ ”

Each current proposal for revising the federal aid form has drawbacks — and detractors.

“The financial aid community wants precision, and a formula that accurately assesses ability to pay, so there’s resistance to any approach that’s simpler but less precise,” said Mark Kantrowitz, president of, a financial aid site. “There’s also a very real concern that if you discard the questions the states, or certain institutions, wanted answered, they’ll create their own financial aid forms, putting us right back where we were before the Fafsa.”  (New York Times)

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