Monday, February 3, 2020

Eliminating FAFSA Benfits Students

The cost of higher education has always been a hot-button issue for presidential hopefuls, and it’s no wonder why; the cost of college tuition has increased eight times faster than wages since the 1980s, according to Forbes. But amid all the talks of reforming how much college costs, it’s rare to hear anyone speak of how college is paid for, and of the necessary re-examination of FAFSA, a 28-year-old piece of paperwork that’s letting students fall through the cracks.

FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a single form that determines student eligibility for all federal financial aid, and its link to college success cannot be overstated. The National College Access Network has found that students who file a FAFSA form are 72% more likely to finish college than those who don’t. According to the Department of Education, each year, FAFSA awards over $120 billion in grants, loans, and other types of aid, such as work-study programs. So why would anyone not fill out this form?

The answer is two-fold: the form is overly complicated and, worse, requires the income information of students’ parents if the students are under the age of 24.

FAFSA is 108 questions and, using a student’s parent’s income information, it generates a Student Aid Report, including the EFC, “expected family contribution,” which is the amount of money the government calculates that a family will contribute to the student’s college costs. The EFC determines how much financial aid a student is eligible for, such as how much they will get in grants (as opposed to loans), and whether their loans will be subsidized or not.

The students most negatively affected by this system are the socioeconomically disadvantaged ones that FAFSA was originally designed to help in the first place.

Let’s start with the simple fact that FAFSA does not look at how much a family actually contributes to a student’s tuition, but instead bases its calculations on tax returns. Tax forms do not, in any way, shape, or form, demonstrate how charitable one’s parents might feel; how much a parent can contribute does not necessarily reflect how much they will.

But the problem is deeper than this, because if a student under the age of 24 can’t get their parents’ income information on their FAFSA, then they are unable to file it at all and are ineligible for any form of student aid. According to the Harvard Political Review, each year, there are roughly $2.8 billion worth of Pell Grants that remain unclaimed.

It’s been over a decade since I had to fill out FAFSA, but I still remember it not-so-fondly as one of the worst parts of my college experience, because I was one of those students made ineligible due to a technicality. I was estranged from my parents and therefore could not complete the form. Mine was not a unique experience; each year, about 25% of FAFSA forms are left incomplete, according to the Federal Student Aid office.

There are plenty of reasons a parent might refuse to fill out their portion of the FAFSA form. Some have cited political protest; the FAFSA form is linked to the Selective Service System. Parents who are undocumented citizens or who didn’t fill out their taxes might understandably prefer not to get mired in legal documentation with the federal government. An illiterate parent might find the process too complicated. And some parents, like my own, might simply have a distant relationship with their child.

There are, of course, stipulations. You can bypass the FAFSA’s “dependence” clause if you are married, a veteran, or a parent of a child. But I, like many 18-year-olds, was disinclined to get married, have a child, or go to war just to complete the form.

A college’s financial aid office has the authority to change a student’s status from “dependent” to “independent” under “unusual circumstances,” but according to the National Postseconday Student Aid Study, only 0.5% of all undergraduate students are independent because of a dependency override. Parental refusal to fill out the form is not considered an unusual circumstance; students whose parents refuse to furnish their income information are routinely told to wait until they turn 24 to be able to complete the form and secure funds to attend college. This was the advice I, too, received from my alma mater’s financial aid office.

The question becomes whether or not FAFSA is even necessary to determine eligibility for federal financial aid in the first place. Susan Dynarski, a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan, suggests that FAFSA could be eliminated altogether; she points out that “the information needed to calculate eligibility for that aid is already collected by the I.R.S.” The FAFSA is supposedly designed to help low-income students, but instead, it regularly fails them, thwarting attempts to receive aid based on technicalities, an inevitable byproduct of the form’s complexity.

FAFSA needs to be re-examined and simplified, and perhaps even eliminated. The poorest and most disenfranchised students that it is designed to help are the ones most likely to fall through its cracks, and it’s only by reforming FAFSA that these students can be saved. There are many factors that create a gap in education between low-income and high-income Americans. But FAFSA doesn’t have to be one of them.

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