Author: Tanvi Varma
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the most complicated aspects of the college application process. With a slew of required documents and extremely labor-intensive questions, applying for this federal funding is an ordeal. But it doesn’t have to be this way — the application process can and should be simplified.
While FAFSA was designed to be a straightforward process that provides students with sufficient financial resources to achieve their educational goals, its effectiveness is hindered by the complexity and sheer length of the application. The 2014–15 version of FAFSA contained 105 questions, ranging from the student and parents’ IRS income tax returns, to the amount of untaxed income received, to the student’s eligibility for different tax returns.
To solve this, FAFSA should cut out questions that are currently expected to be answered twice — once by the student and once by the guardian in separate sections. Instead of repeatedly addressing the student’s eligibility for different tax returns, FAFSA should replace these sections with questions about the student’s familial life instead. Such questions could include inquiries about medical expenses, additional dependents or other hefty expenses. In the application’s current state, if a family were dealing with a costly medical issue, the expense would not be incorporated into FAFSA’s calculation unless the subject were an elderly dependent.
Another problematic aspect of FAFSA is that the calculation of financial aid is only based on financial records, though these numbers do not always provide an accurate representation of a student’s true need. An improved version of FAFSA needs to adopt a more holistic approach, in which other factors influence the amount of financial aid allotted. For example, the current FAFSA only asks for the number of siblings who will be in college during the academic year. A question about the total number of siblings in the student’s family, however, would provide more background to calculate an accurate amount of needed aid. This question would account for the number of individuals potentially attending college in the future, acknowledging a family’s prospective financial burden instead of solely focusing on the cost at hand.
In gaining a more encompassing picture of the student’s financial background, FAFSA would be more accessible to students who may be unable to provide all the necessary documentation. In a letter published by The New York Times, an individual identifying as Dr. Meh mentions a scenario in which the parent or legal guardian either refuses or is not in a position to provide the information necessary to fill out FAFSA. In such a case, the student’s opportunity to attend college is threatened because they cannot force their guardian(s) to adequately file taxes or fill out their portion of the FAFSA paperwork.
In order to provide proof of this fractured relationship, the student would need to present some documentation proving that they took some form of action against their guardian. FAFSA will refuse to provide aid if a student cannot provide the necessary evidence, essentially hindering the student from attending college through no fault of their own. In order to avoid this situation, FAFSA should make the application less dependent on the parent or guardian. The first step of this process should be to lessen the number of financial documents required.
It would not be beneficial to completely eliminate the application, nor would it be ideal to leave it in its current state; If FAFSA were eliminated entirely, a system of financial checks and balances would not exist. In a time when student loan accessibility is a growing problem in higher education, a revised FAFSA application is integral to accommodate a broader applicant pool.
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