Paying for College

Finally: A Fine-Tuned FAFSA

My wife and I put two children through college. Every year for eight years I filled out three separate financial aid forms. There was the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile), and a college-specific form for each school our kids attended.

I told my wife that it was like doing our long-form taxes twice every year. I can honestly say that I hated doing it with the intensity of a thousand burning suns (how's that for excess?) and loathed the onset of the annual misery like one does an impending root canal. Break out the Valium!

Well, finally, some forward-thinking bureaucrats have found a way to ease the misery quotient on the FAFSA:

WASHINGTON -- Like many a politician, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is at his best when he's talking off the cuff.

"This damn form was killing us," Duncan said to a small group of reporters after a more formal presentation Wednesday to the White House press corps about the Obama administration's plan to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. He was talking about how big a deterrent the federal form was to getting students from low-income families to apply to college, when Duncan, as superintendent of Chicago's public schools throughout this decade, was trying to increase the district's college-going rates.

In part because of the FAFSA's multiple pages and scores of questions seeking personal and financial information about students and their families, many policy experts believe, hundreds of thousands of potential recipients forgo many millions of dollars of federal college aid each year.

That, plain and simple, is the reason why so many higher education analysts -- and both of the last two presidential administrations -- have made "simplification" of the financial aid form a major priority. (It's also something that can be done without a huge financial cost, something that can't be said about too many things in this town these days.) The Obama administration has put increasing Americans' rate of college going near the top of its agenda for economic recovery and progress, and that political imperative is creating movement on the idea of simplifying the financial aid process where it has been hard to come by previously.

But the previous inertia has resulted in part because there are potential downsides to FAFSA simplification -- most notably if information the government collects through the form is narrowed so much that states and colleges no longer have confidence in its validity and fairness -- and the ultimate success of the Obama/Duncan plan will depend in part on how successfully it avoids such pitfalls.

As Duncan and the Education Department trumpeted the proposal Wednesday with the high-profile appearance at the White House, along with IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, the information they provided left many details to be determined. It seems clear, though, that as with many policy initiatives important to Obama, the administration seems intent on making forward progress even if it can't go as far as some think it should. "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Obama has taken to saying about health care and other matters, and the administration's approach on FAFSA simplification seems to follow that approach, too . . .

Here's a less-officalese perspective:

The Department of Education has announced that the FAFSA, considered (by me) to suck worse than any form ever, is getting shorter and less painful. Most importantly for those of you who have procrastination-prone parents that just don't enjoy filling out forms (me, again), the FAFSA will allow students applying for financial aid in the spring semester of 2010 to "seamlessly retrieve their relevant tax information from the IRS for easy completion."

In addition to shrinking from 30 screens to 10, CNN says that the new FAFSA will replace soul-destroying bureaucrat speech with simple, easy to understand questions.

For example, the question, "At any time... did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?" will instead be, "Are you homeless?" . . .

So, what do you think about all this? If you would like to see how others (mainly parents) are reacting to this news, take a look at (or better yet participate in) the College Confidential discussion of this topic. I keep trying to limit my "It's too good to be true" cynicism, along with my fear of the dreaded "Hi, I'm from the government and I'm here to help" fears. Hope we don't need more Valium.

Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.