You've Got Mail: Is a Postcard-Sized FAFSA Best for Working Parents?

A financial aid application that consists of only two questions and can fit on a postcard? I admit, as a busy working parent and former busy financial aid officer, the prospect sounds tempting. I don't know of a working parent or aid administrator who couldn't use a little time savings.

A Simpler FAFSA: Is it Necessary?

The FAFSA simplification proposal recently announced in the Senate, while virtuous in its intent to get more families completing the application and therefore getting the financial assistance they're entitled to is at best unnecessary, and at worst counterproductive.

Despite widespread perception to the contrary, the FAFSA is not actually too complicated. Families can struggle with the timing of the financial aid application, due prior to tax return completion. The form itself, however, is fairly straightforward. The average time to complete the FAFSA is 22 minutes, and skip-logic recently added to the online form can make the process even quicker for families of modest means.

In fact, as Robert Weinerman explains in his blog series, the FAFSA is too simple. On its own, the FAFSA does not do a particularly good job of fairly measuring a family's ability to pay for college. That's why approximately 300 colleges in the United States, most of them private institutions with generous aid programs, utilize an additional form.

Cautioning Against the New FAFSA Proposal

Another financial aid application, The College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile also helps determine school-based aid eligibility. The CSS/Profile is a much more extensive application, digs much deeper into a family's financial situation, and actually is, for many families, a bit of a bear to complete. A two-question FAFSA, basing aid package decisions only on household size and Adjusted Gross Income, is too vulnerable to exploitation. And, it doesn't adequately measure a family's ability to payimagine the silver-spooned family, who lives off a sizable trust and doesn't have to work, qualifying for massive amounts of financial aid.

Were the Lamar/Bennet FAFSA proposal to pass, hundreds of additional colleges would choose to require the CSS/Profile in addition to the FAFSA in order to get the appropriate amount of information necessary to give financial aid. This reaction would further complicate the financial aid application process for all families, and we'd end up with the exact opposite effect of the bill's intention.

Why Don't Families Complete the FAFSA?

From my experience as a college aid officer and a College Coach finance educator, I've found that there are three main reasons why people don't complete the FAFSA and therefore don't receive the aid they're entitled to. Note that none of the three reasons are that the FAFSA is too long.

They don't know about the requirement

With today's guidance counselors stretched to the limit drowning in a sea of disciplinary issues, drug and alcohol counseling, IEPs, and course schedule management many high schools are simply unable to give the necessary attention to the college admissions and financial aid application processes. Many students, particularly first-generation college students, are simply unaware of how to apply for financial aid.

They assume they're not eligible for aid

I am often surprised by how many middle-income families think they make too much money to qualify for financial aid when they are actually well within eligible income ranges. Many parents are shocked when I tell them that families with incomes close to $200,000 may receive financial assistance from some private colleges (and this threshold actually goes up quite a bit when a family has more than one child in college at the same time).

They're intimidated by the process

When parents are continually told how impossible the FAFSA is to complete (and I fear this proposal adds fuel to that fire), it's no wonder they begin to believe the rhetoric and opt out of the financial aid process altogether.

Remove Those Financial Aid Misconceptions

My favorite part of my job as a college finance educator is removing the intimidation factor of the financial aid process showing parents, from an insider's point of view, how to break the process down into manageable steps, take control, and maximize aid opportunities. Whether the FAFSA consists of 2 questions or 108 questions, it doesn't need to be overwhelming. The problem of qualified families not completing the FAFSA and its related detrimental effects on college access and completion is better solved through the provision of reliable guidance, accurate information, and empowerment of families than through a simple shrinking of the form onto a postcard. 
 
An employee benefit like College Coach education and financial aid advising can help working families navigate the college process without unnecessary financial stress or lost time at work spent researching the college admissions process. Learn more here about how your organization can offer the College Coach benefit.     

Written by: Shannon Vasconcelos

About the Author

Shannon works with Bright Horizons Education & College Advising corporate clients to deliver college financing workshops and provide personalized counseling to employees. She has over 10 years of experience in student financial assistance, at Boston University and Tufts University, and has also served as an active member of MASFAA’s Early Awareness and Outreach Committee, as a trainer for DOE’s National Training for Counselors and Mentors, and as a volunteer for FAFSA Day Massachusetts.