Last year's tax return. A computer connected to the Internet. Up to an hour and a lot of patience. These are some of the many things a student must have in order to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But for many low-income students, that process is far too complicated. A growing number of experts and politicians argue the system should be simplified to ensure students aren't discouraged from applying for financial aid.
The 2015-2016 FAFSA submission period opened last week. Students are urged to apply as soon as possible in order to meet state deadlines and maximize the amount of aid they receive. There's a lot up for grabs: The federal student aid office distributes more than $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study funds every year. There's also a lot of competition: The 2013-2014 year saw more than 21 million applications.
But about 2 million more students who would have qualified for Pell Grants didn't file the FAFSA in 2011-2012, according to a forthcoming report from Edvisors. About 14 percent said they didn't know how to apply, and another 9 percent said the forms were too much work.
The paper version of the FAFSA has 110 questions and supplementary worksheets. The online version employs skip logic, which means an applicant's responses determine which questions they need to answer, but still takes an average of 55 minutes to complete.
The obvious remedy is to cut down on the number of questions, said American Council on Education senior vice president Terry Hartle. Congress has done this in the past but only shaved off five to 10 questions, Hartle said.
A total of two questions is the magic number for former education department secretary Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). In June, they proposed the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act. It would condense the FAFSA into a postcard requiring only family size and income two years prior. The senators are expected to reintroduce the bill this session, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"There is no doubt that would dramatically encourage more people to complete the FAFSA," Hartle said, but it comes at a price. The easier the FAFSA is, the more people will file it, the more who will qualify for aid, and the more expensive student aid programs become. He said Congress should look at it as a tradeoff.
The reduced amount of required information could also lead to some students who don't need aid qualifying for it. The current FAFSA has so many questions because it wants to uncover resources and assets, Hartle said. Without those, it's harder to determine which families have low, middle and high incomes.
Another side effect of a shorter FAFSA would be more forms from different sources. Right now, about 30 questions on the application are used by states and schools to determine student aid. If the FAFSA eliminates those, they won't get the information they need and will be forced to require students to fill out other applications, said Kal Chany, author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke."
Fixing the FAFSA could be as easy as updating the website, which isn't especially user-friendly. Chany said the application's linear process disadvantages people who might not have all the right documents gathered. The use of a PIN as a digital signature can be confusing -- it's case-sensitive, but the website doesn't make that clear -- and the terminology is confusing. Some questions refer to "you" and "your" without explaining whether the parent or student is being addressed. Chany said color coding and a better interface could make the FAFSA instructions clearer. "It's not just the data on the forms" that trips people up, he said.
A FAFSA simplification should accompany an overhaul of the entire financial aid system, Edvisor publisher Mark Kantrowitz said. Right now, it can actually disadvantage low-income students. For example, while the FAFSA application period opens in January, it requires income tax information many families don't have until spring. Add on the time it takes to process the forms, and students don't get an idea of their financial aid package until after college registration deadlines. Low-income students decline to enroll because they're not sure they'll be able to afford it.
Whatever decisions lawmakers make, the financial aid process should ultimately be streamlined, Kantrowitz said. Most drawbacks to a simpler system pale in comparison to the benefits -- more students pursuing higher education, he said.