As the federal deadline for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid approaches — a form that students must complete in order to determine their eligibility for financial assistance — efforts have increased to guide students through the often arduous process of applying for financial aid.
While the FAFSA indicates which students are entitled to federal aid, such as Pell Grants, student loans and work-study, universities also use information from the FAFSA to determine how much tuition a given student has to cover. Though states and colleges generally have different deadlines for completion of the FAFSA, the application opens on Jan. 1 and should be filled out as soon as possible, Executive Director of New Haven Promise Patricia Melton ’82 said.
“Free money goes first and fast,” Melton said. “Thus, it is very important to complete the forms as soon as possible. Families should not delay. There is help in person and online. Families that wait until tax day to file their FAFSA are at a disadvantage for getting all the free aid that is available.”
Although the federal deadline for the FAFSA is June 30, both Melton and Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi recommended that families submit the form much earlier. According to Yale’s financial aid website, the University suggests that families complete the FAFSA after they finish their 2014 tax returns, but no later than May 10. Filling out the application early enough is one of the main challenges families have with the FAFSA, Melton said, since many people are tempted to wait long after filing their taxes to complete the form.
She added that families who are filling out the form for the first time may also be intimidated, particularly those whose first language is not English.
Emma Goldrick ’17 said she finds the FAFSA very challenging to fill out each year, and that the form often calculates that her parents can put more money toward her tuition than they actually can.
“My main issues with it are that it assumes your family is willing to bankrupt itself just to pay your tuition, and also that it’s an extremely difficult, bureaucratic hoop that you have to jump through,” Goldrick said. “I can’t imagine trying to fill it out if my parents didn’t speak English or if they didn’t have steady jobs.”
Three students interviewed who receive financial aid from the University said they depend completely on their parents to fill out their FAFSA, because they are unable to manage the form themselves.
Storlazzi said it is inarguable that the application process for financial aid is very time consuming, requiring families to become quickly conversant with complex terminology in order to complete the form. He added that it is difficult to pinpoint which component of the FAFSA families find the most challenging, since questions vary on a case-by-case basis.
“Each family is different and has different questions or concerns with completing the FAFSA,” Storlazzi said. “Sometimes the terminology can be confusing, especially for families who don’t complete their own tax returns — using outside help, for example — as they might not have the terminology right at their fingertips. Ample instructions are provided with the FAFSA, but there’s nothing like in-person help right when it is needed.”
Although Melton and Storlazzi both said that completing the FAFSA can be difficult for some families, they also noted that there are many opportunities for families to receive in-person help while filling out the application.
Yale is a member of the CT Association of Professional Financial Aid Administrators, which hosts a statewide outreach program called “College Goal Sunday” every January — a program that allows students and families to interact directly with financial aid personnel while completing the FAFSA. According to Storlazzi, staff from Yale Student Financial Services have volunteered and participated in CGS.
“As a new option this year, Yale has partnered with New Haven Promise in order to provide a second regional FAFSA program locally in New Haven,” Storlazzi said. “We held this session on the Yale campus on Feb. 25, and the offering was a great success. About 20 families attended and with four financial aid officers, each family could get all of their questions answered without waiting.”
On Feb. 2, the Obama Administration released a budget proposal calling for many higher education reforms, including the simplification and streamlining of the FAFSA. The proposal outlined the deletion of 30 questions — the most “burdensome” and “difficult-to-verify” — reducing the total number of questions on the application to 78. The reformed FAFSA would primarily rely on information that is readily available from federal tax returns.
All five students interviewed said they support a simplification of the FAFSA, so long as the reduced number of questions does not result in miscalculations of financial need.
Madeline Tomlinson ’17 said that while the FAFSA in its current state is very lengthy, the obvious reason for the large number of questions is that a lot of information is required in order for schools to properly calculate a student’s financial need.
“It would be great if the government could simplify the application and make it easier for students to fill out on their own,” Tomlinson said. “But I’m not sure exactly how this can be done without putting some students in jeopardy of receiving less aid.”
This statement was echoed by Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, who told Inside Higher Ed that colleges worry that eliminating too many questions from the FAFSA will make it more difficult for them to understand how much tuition a family is capable of paying. Schools only have a limited pool of funds, and when less information is gathered about a student’s financial situation, everyone looks needier on paper, Draeger said.
But Melton expressed support for efforts to reduce the burden that the FAFSA places on many families.
“Any attempt to simplify and assist families to complete the form is a welcome change,” Melton said. “One can never do enough to help families through this intimidating process.”
The Department of Education estimates that roughly 2 million students who would have qualified for federal aid were unable to complete the FAFSA.