By Allie Ciaramella, former NCAN Communications Manager
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is notorious for its infuriating complexity, mind-numbing antiquity, and undeniable importance to would-be college students. As the gateway to not only federal support including Pell Grants but also many state and institutional funds, the FAFSA is the key to college access for millions of low-income students each year.
A lesser-known aspect of the form is its relationship to college success. But advocates for higher education like philanthropist Bill Gates, whose foundation is a major supporter of NCAN’s work to simplify the FAFSA, are well aware that the not-so-simple act of filing the form can have life-changing consequences for Americans nationwide. That’s why Gates is explaining his intent focus on identifying ways to #FixFAFSA to help more low-income and first-generation students access and succeed in postsecondary education.
The connection between FAFSA-filing and college enrollment is clear – and strong: Students who apply for federal aid are 64 percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education directly after high school than those who don’t apply. Once on a campus, FAFSA completers are 72 percent more likely than their non-completing peers to persist in college.
Although the impact of FAFSA completion on the ultimate indicator of postsecondary success – completion – is less clear, students cannot obtain a degree if they fail to persist or even enroll. So it stands to reason that simplifying the federal aid application so more students complete it can only have positive effects on the educational attainment and economic success of the nation’s workforce.
This is not an abstract concept. Just ask Candace Chambers, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who said filing the FAFSA got her the aid she needed to finish a degree in four years. Or Samps Taylor, a sophomore studying instrumental performance at Alcorn State University, who calls financial aid “the lifeline for what I’m doing.” Or Camryn Pollard, a freshman at the College of Wooster who plans to become an FBI agent and says that “filling out the FAFSA was the greatest thing I could ever do.”
These students were fortunate to have support from NCAN members Woodward Hines Education Foundation, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, and College Now Greater Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of low-income students who must fend for themselves fall victim each year to “the leaky FAFSA pipeline.” Among those who do manage to get the information they need to complete the form, NCAN estimates that half are flagged for verification and 25 percent of those selected go on to be thwarted by the overly burdensome process, which disproportionately affects the low-income students who need aid most by requiring them to submit extra paperwork to prove – yet again – that their financial situation warrants the money to which they’re entitled.
There are ideas for fixing FAFSA. In a Gates Foundation video, experts suggest eliminating unnecessary questions, making the process applicable for all students including part-time and returning ones at different institution types, and utilizing information the federal government already has so applicants don’t have to provide it repeatedly.
“Simplifying financial aid means that we as access advisors spend far less time talking about process,” NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook says in the video, “and far more time actually advising students about what their careers will look like in the future.”