To find out if they qualify for financial aid from the federal government, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — a complex form with over 100 questions. The FAFSA process is frequently characterized as complex, onerous and difficult. In fact, even in today’s contentious Congress, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree that it’s time to clean up the FAFSA.
Despite its shortcomings, one success of the current form is that most states have aligned their state application process to data received directly from the FAFSA. In fact, in 2014, more than three-quarters of state financial aid was allocated to students based on information states received from their FAFSAs. This alignment means that, under the current process, students essentially apply for federal and state aid at the same time — removing what could potentially be double the paperwork from their to-do lists.
The current proposal before Congress, the PROSPER Act, continues two FAFSA simplification practices currently in place that allow applicants to fill in fewer questions regardless of when they apply for aid. The PROSPER Act also advances two new ideas for making the form easier to complete:
- First, it requires that applicants have access to complete the FAFSA on a mobile device.
- Second, it lets families making under $100,000 per year skip certain questions related to their assets.
Both changes are laudable, have the potential to make the form easier for today’s students and keep middle-income families from answering questions that are unlikely to impact their final aid package.
However, more can be done to truly simplify the process for more students — without sacrificing state-level alignment.
In Simplification May Not Be So Simple, we asked states what FAFSA data elements were most important to them. We found that states are largely reliant on the Estimated Family Contribution and date that the form was filed to determine eligibility for state aid. According to our research, neither of the simplification proposals in the PROSPER Act risk compromising state-level alignment; in fact, they may not go far enough.
Allowing mobile access to the FAFSA is just that: access. It does not make the questions on the form simpler to understand or answer, and does not serve students without access to mobile devices. Allowing some middle-income families to skip asset questions simplifies it for a few, but that does not make it any easier for low-income students to go through the process.
States must be involved in simplification conversations to ensure that current alignment is preserved. However, federal lawmakers can do more than what is proposed in the PROSPER Act, while still preserving state alignment.