More than 1M high school seniors don't fill out FAFSA. Is it time to simplify?

Non-applicants 'a tragic loss of academic opportunity'

The push to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is gaining traction and support from education leaders and legislators across the nation. 

More than 1 million high school seniors fail to fill out the form each year, most of whom would receive Pell grants if they had, according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A survey of students who did not go on to college revealed that only 12% applied for financial aid. The federal government currently spends over $150 billion on financial aid each year.   

The 100-question application process can be nerve-wracking and complicated. Studies from Harvard University, Stanford University, and the National Bureau of Economic Research all show simplifying FAFSA increases low-income students' likeliness to pursue higher education.

"That is a tragic loss of academic opportunity and human potential," says Duncan

Recently, the Education Department has streamlined the process a bit, allowing students to skip non-application questions when using the online version.

But it still asks for information about families' income, savings, assets, and liabilities from the year before to calculate the amount they can be expected to pay. That number determines Pell grant and other aid eligibility.

Advocates say a complete overhaul is necessary.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), prior chairman of the Senate education committee, sought to simplify the process by including in his Higher Education Act reauthorization bill a plan to let students reapply less often.  

Read the story: Harkin leaves blueprint for Higher Ed

A study group commissioned by the College Board last year suggested eliminating FAFSA, and instead using household income and family size to calculate Pell eligibility. And on Wednesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D- Colorado) introduced a bill that would downsize FAFSA from a 10-page form to a two-question process fitting on a postcard. Alexander is expected to become the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee chair.

Such a plan may increase costs, says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, because more students would qualify for aid. State governments and institutions themselves also rely on data from FAFSA, he says.

However, he says the "bold, dramatic proposal" deserves "careful attention and study" (Rivera, Los Angeles Times, 1/6).  

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