Earlier this month, the Obama Administration announced a series of changes to the Federal Application for Student Aid that could simplify the process of applying for financial assistance.
Beginning in 2016, the FAFSA will open on Oct. 1, instead of its past release date of Jan. 1. Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said that in addition to giving students more time to complete the form, the earlier date will also allow students to use older tax information to fill out the FAFSA.
The FAFSA — a form used by college students to determine their eligibility for financial assistance — has a reputation for being time-consuming and difficult to complete. In addition to deciding which students are eligible for Pell Grants, student loans and other forms of federal aid, the FAFSA also determines how much tuition a student is responsible for paying to their university. But with over 100 questions and the expectation that students complete the form in the late winter or early spring — before most families file their taxes — the FAFSA has been criticized by students and higher education experts.
“The FAFSA is possibly the hardest and longest app for college,” Emma Goldrick ’17 said.
She added that filling out the form would be almost impossible if her parents did not have a working knowledge of English and steady jobs, which is not the case for many students applying for aid.
It is in recognition of this difficulty that the federal government is making modifications to the form. At a press conference on Sept. 14, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the government was announcing an “easier, earlier FAFSA.”
Currently, most students are expected to apply to college in the fall, and for financial aid in January, when the FAFSA is released. This timeline makes it unlikely that students know the size of their financial aid package until long after they are admitted.
Another complication is that the current FAFSA requires an applicant’s tax information from the prior year, although the form is due long before most families file their taxes, said Patricia Melton, executive director of New Haven Promise. It is imperative that students file their FAFSAs as early as possible, Melton said, but many procrastinate due to the tax issue.
According to National Public Radio, roughly 4 million students apply for aid each year before their families’ taxes have been filed, meaning they are unable to complete the FAFSA in its entirety.
Storlazzi added that one useful component of the FAFSA is the “IRS data-retrieval tool,” through which parents and students can log onto the IRS through the FAFSA, and pre-fill the form with existing tax data. However, in past years, students who have not yet filed their taxes have been unable to use this tool, requiring them to fill out all of their information manually. Now, students can use tax information from two years prior to complete the FAFSA, guaranteeing that a family’s taxes will be filed by the time they complete the form and ensuring that all applicants can utilize the data retrieval tool.
“Does it mean that families have to do the FAFSA earlier?” Storlazzi said. “No. But they can, and it opens up the possibilities of all schools doing something earlier.”
Though Storlazzi did not foresee any issues with students applying for aid with older tax data — people tend not to double their income over the course of a single year, he said — he did anticipate Yale and other schools struggling to align their institutional analyses with the new FAFSA. The University uses the FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility for Yale aid, Storlazzi said, and Student Financial Services will have to revise its process in conjunction with the use of prior-prior year tax data.
Though Isiah Cruz ’17 said he is encouraged by the recent changes to the FAFSA, he believes there is still work to be done in making college more accessible to low-income students.
“They need to fix the clutter that’s inherent about the application,” Cruz said. “It’s difficult to fill out and kind of bland; they need to change the actual interface.”
Cruz added that while the changes create a more inclusive application process, they are primarily aimed at students who might be filling out the FAFSA, as opposed to their parents. Most of the time, Cruz said, parents take on the responsibility of completing the FAFSA for their child, since the form is confusing for students unfamiliar with tax terminology. There needs to be a larger focus on parents, and on making sure the FAFSA is simpler for them to complete, he said.
International students are not eligible for federal aid, but may be asked to fill out the FAFSA so schools can determine their financial need.