College isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s a time of intense self-reflection, overwhelming planning, and an upgrade in curriculum difficulty. The expectations are higher, while the hours of sleep are lower, and the comfort zone is often tested to unparalleled degrees.
But for the millions of students that apply yearly for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, attending college is simply the beginning — the paperwork to get it paid is an entirely different sort of challenge.
Created in 1992 with the goal of simplifying the financial aid process, the FAFSA has since its inception proven to cast perhaps far too great a shadow to become the easily accessible task it was originally conceived as. As a result, students and parents alike are balking at the difficulties that the forms present, causing many to ignore them all together.
Attempts to fix the forms have proven futile, often making things worse. In 2008, Congress requested for the forms to be made simpler, yet added seven new questions to what is already a six-page form. And even if these additional questions are answered, the form still continues to do a poor job of assessing reasonable financial worth, excluding various assets like cars and homes, yet refusing to factor in the high cost of living in affluent areas of the United States such as New York or the better parts of California.
In addition to what many critics are calling the form’s major issues, the FAFSA continuously makes filing difficult for nearly 50 percent of the nation: the divorced families. Aside from the difficulty in determining which household income to document, single parents are often awarded more money in aid, which many feel might prohibit partners from remarrying at the risk of decreasing funding.
And beyond those in dire need of financial support, the FAFSA is often criticized for all but ignoring the middle class, instead awarding aid to only those who are deemed extremely financially challenged.
From the current economic collapse to the constant rise in college prices, 2009 has seen more families than ever file for financial aid. The Department of Education has already received over 2.2 million forms, a 20 percent boost from this time last year.
But the FAFSA needs to adapt to the current economic state in order to really be in the best interest of the people. The forms, which became available on Jan. 1 and are due on March 1, don’t account for income changes in a given household after the FAFSA is filed. As a result, many who feel the strain of the current economic crisis may find themselves out of a job post-filing period, but awarded aid in relation to their original income.
Such issues have prompted the Department of Education to consider two approaches to simplifying the FAFSA. One would cut most financial questions from the forms in their entirety, opting instead to simply ask for the adjusted gross income and number of yearly tax exemptions.
The resulting template leaves the form at two pages, with less than 30 questions in total — less than half of the current forms.
The second option would allow taxpayers to contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) themselves, granting them the right to share information of tax returns with the Education Department directly.
Some have found that the form could be immensely simplified without any great impact on students’ aid eligibility, but experts warn that once the forms are deemed “simple,” some states and universities might create their own forms to get additional information, bringing us right back to where we started.
But whether the FAFSA will really be updated anytime soon still remains in question: one alternative uses less data, but might not be enough, and the other asks for more data, but might alienate those who don’t file taxes but need aid the most. The answer for “what to do next” remains as perplexing as the forms themselves.
And until the forms are revised, and the process for granting aid is made easier and more accessible, parents should be ready and willing to see the challenge head-on and take the time to fill out what may end up saving them thousands upon thousands of dollars a year.
After all, college isn’t supposed to be easy.
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