Filling out the FAFSA is similar to filing your taxes — except instead of expecting a refund at the end of April, you’re crossing your fingers for financial aid. Both are complicated and sometimes require the help of professionals.
But Mary Fallon says it doesn’t have to be that way. The director of communication at Student Financial Aid Services, which has been helping students prepare their Free Application to Federal Student Aid for 23 years, says the process can by simplified — by a lot.
“We see a lot of people who are first-time college students, which is about 15 percent of overall student population in college, and we see a lot of people whose parents don’t speak English as a native language,” Fallon said.
Nationally, ten to 14 percent of eligible college students do not fill out the FAFSA each year.
“There’s a couple things going on here. A lot of students fill out the FAFSA but still drop out. A lot of students fill out the FAFSA one time but don’t come back and do it again. A lot of students who are eligible for the FAFSA don’t fill it out at all,” Fallon said.
After the Department of Education last year put out a call for recommendations on making the process run smoother, Fallon and her colleagues at SFAS came up with a list of solutions that make applying for aid easier than ever before.
1. Create an open data exchange to streamline the application process.
When you go to fill out your FAFSA, “you’re constantly inputting data,” Fallon said. This is necessary because the FAFSA requires using your most up-to-date information, but it also opens up the process for errors.
“Other federal agencies have open data exchanges, where data only flows to the federal government, but a third party comes in and streamlines the process, making it more consumer-friendly,” Fallon said. She says the IRS and immigration departments have similar exchanges, known as APIs, or application programming interfaces. Such data-sharing software could store FAFSA results, master promissory notes, and student loans all in one place. Currently, college students have their data spread out on several different websites.
2. Use prior-prior tax data to fill out the FAFSA.
“Aid opens January 1st. Most aid is offered on a first come, first serve basis,” Fallon explains. Many colleges urge students to apply for aid as quickly as possible, making the FAFSA deadline in March or early April. But because the FAFSA deadline almost always comes before the April 15 deadline for filing income tax, applicants have to guess at what their income is, then go back and update their FAFSA after their income tax is filed. This could be avoided if the Department of Education allowed applicants to file using income from their previous year tax returns.
“The April 15 deadline for income tax messes with people’s minds. They say, ‘Well, I’ve got to file my income taxes. But while they’re filing their income taxes a lot of other people are getting ahead of them in line [for aid],” Fallon said.
3. Translate the FAFSA into different languages.
Currently, the FAFSA is only available in English and Spanish, and Fallon says that holds many students back.
“The top 10 languages most often spoken in the U.S., besides English and Spanish, are Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Russian, Italian, and Portuguese,” she said. Translating it into more languages removes another potential barrier to aid, especially for first-generation college students.
4. Make it apparent that free and fee-based services exist to help confused parents and their kids fill out the FAFSA.
The folks at Student Financial Aid Services will help you fill out your FAFSA, but not for free. For a one-time fee of $79.99, they’ll do it for you, and you also get a year’s worth of consultation from SFAS, whether it’s you or your parents who have the questions.
“FAFSAs are more likely to get finished when they have professional help,” Fallon said. Nationally, 15 to 20 percent of students eligible for Pell grants don’t reapply for them the second year because filling out the FAFSA is too complicated.
“We want more people to go to college, we want more people to get aid, we want more people to make decisions on the college they choose based on their academic and financial situation,” she said.