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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

June 24, 2014 at 5:00 AM

108 questions — or just 2? Maybe a shorter FAFSA could do the job

High-school seniors at Kent Meridian High School get help applying for scholarships and filling out the FAFSA. Photo by Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times 2012.

High-school seniors at Kent Meridian High School get help applying for scholarships and filling out the FAFSA. Photo by Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times 2012.

Like a research paper on the DNA sequence of fruit flies, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — commonly known as the FAFSA — is daunting enough that the name alone inspires dread.

Officially, the financial aid form is supposed to take less than an hour to complete. Yet its instructions are as dense as its acronym, and once the form is submitted there’s no easy way to know if you’ve made a mistake.

Researchers believe these problems are dissuading millions of potential college students, who blanch at the 108-question form and walk away. In 2007-08, for example, roughly 2 million eligible students did not complete the FAFSA application for Pell scholarships — missing out on college grants of up to $5,645, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

“Rather than promote access, student aid often creates a series of barriers — a gauntlet that the poorest students must run to get to college,” says a Congressional report from 2005.

A potential answer — or at least the start of an important conversation — comes through a bill proposed by former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander (now a Republican senator from Tennessee) and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, a former superintendent in the Denver schools. They suggest editing the dizzying form down to two simple questions: What’s your parents’ income? And how many people are in your family?

This sounds impossibly simplistic, but the senators cite research showing that FAFSA’S complexity does almost nothing to fine-tune its financial awards.

Susan M. Dynarski, an economist and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and Judith Scott-Clayton, an economics professor at Columbia Teachers College, examined data from thousands of applications and aid packages, then calculated the difference in these amounts if the FAFSA were drastically scaled back.

“The answer surprised even us,” they write. “The vast majority of the questions on the FAFSA contribute nothing to the targeting of federal aid.”

Turns out that providing household income and family size gets you pretty close to the same distribution as you’d receive after plowing through the current 10-page form. The economists found that 91 percent of students would see a change of less than $500 (either up or down) in their awards.

“If you know a potential student is very poor — say she grew up in a family with income of $15,000 — then you know she is eligible for the maximum Pell grant,” they write. “You don’t need to ask how much her parents have in their (probably nonexistent) investment accounts.”

Some people say the FAFSA is no biggie. Maybe — if you’re an educated adult accustomed to filing a 1040 tax return every year (though even the economists say the FAFSA is tougher).

But imagine you’re a high-school senior who doesn’t live with her parents. Questions 54 and 55 on this year’s form ask if you’re an emancipated minor or have a court-appointed guardian. Here’s how the government explains this: “The definition of legal guardianship does not include your parents, even if they were appointed by a court to be your guardians.”

Um, ok.

Bellevue accountant Paula Bishop, who helps families navigate college financial aid, says it doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager on her own or a member of the elite: “Even lawyers, Ph.D.s, they screw it up,” she said.

Comments | More in News | Topics: FAFSA, higher ed

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