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College Affordability and Preparedness

How Can We Streamline Access to Financial Aid?

Starting this year, students get a three-month head start on applying for financial aid for college – a change that should help them receive billions in unclaimed dollars for college earlier and more easily. But those students still have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and far too few are doing so.

Missing out on aid

Students who file the FAFSA are significantly more likely to enroll in and complete college, which according to studies can translate into millions more dollars in lifetime earnings. Students also have incredibly good odds of receiving money for college, with 85 percent getting some form of funding, and 92 percent of students from low-income houses receiving grants that never have to be paid back.

Yet a large number of students — 55 percent — fail to file the FAFSA before high school graduation. So what’s happening to all that aid money? Well, nothing. A 2014 analysis found that 1.4 million high school graduates left about $2.7 billion in financial aid on the table because they didn’t file the FAFSA.

Increasing access

Fortunately, the Obama administration ushered in major changes this month that should help students claim more of that money. The FAFSA’s not just earlier; for most, it is also easier. Millions more students can now import their income tax information already filed with the Internal Revenue Service into the form electronically, speeding up the process and reducing the likelihood that students must verify their information again after completing the FAFSA. The change also gives students earlier notice of their federal aid eligibility, which provides more time for shopping around and applying to colleges before admissions deadlines.

But making the form available earlier won’t be enough to fix FAFSA. The next President and Congress should also eliminate unnecessary questions, let more applicants automatically import income data, decrease the use of data verification, and simplify the FSA ID, the new complicated username and password system that has increased average FAFSA completion times by several minutes.

Spreading the word

In the meantime, we need to continue to support millions of underserved low-income, minority and first-generation students as they pursue their educational dreams. New campaigns encourage students to file the FAFSA — no matter what — and offer comprehensive toolkits and many free resources on the FAFSA process, conducting outreach to families and hosting application events. If we each do our part, schools, businesses and nonprofits can reverse the downward trend in submitted FAFSA forms and set millions more students down the path to a bright future.

Kim Cook, Executive Director, National College Access Network, [email protected]

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