What's so hard about FAFSA?

Sometimes parents don't have all the necessary information needed to file FAFSA

Completing the FAFSA may now be a simpler process, but it remains a headache for many students and their families, Cory Turner writes for nprEd

As of Oct. 1, 2016, students and families seeking college admission for fall of 2017 can now complete the FAFSA using their 2015 tax information. The prior-prior year change provides several possible benefits for prospective college freshmen and their families, including:

  • Application timing that permits streamlined FAFSA completion through the IRS Direct Retrieval tool;
  • Earlier access to Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) scores; and
  • Longer timeframes to consider college costs and evaluate institutional aid packages.

The changes should make filing much simpler, right? Not exactly, as Turner found.  He followed several students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., as they worked to complete the FAFSA. It was far from smooth sailing.

There are still many steps involved in filing FAFSA that slow down students, says Margaret Feldman, the director of college advising with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria. She is based at T.C. Williams and guides students through the FAFSA process there.

"One of the main hurdles with completing the FAFSA is just the number of steps that students have to go through and the different moving pieces that are required from parents and students," she says. "So, getting them in the same place with all of the information that they need to actually fill out the FAFSA in one sitting is pretty tricky."

How the prior-prior year FAFSA might be changing student behavior

Senior Dontae Hibbert and her father had to restart the FSA ID website, which verifies student and parent identities to prevent fraud, after it crashed. When that happens, users have to exit the browser and start over, Feldman says. And any typos entered into the website cause new delays and frustrations.

"If you have to ever change the name, the date of birth or the Social Security number, we resubmit and then we have to wait one to three days to log back in to the FSA ID account," Feldman says. Dontae gave up on the FAFSA for the day after mistyping her father's birthdate. 

Then there's the issue of collecting all the information necessary to complete the FAFSA. Feldman notes that students are often forced to call their parents to fill in the blanks. One student's father couldn't remember his Social Security number, so her FAFSA had to be put on hold.

Family dynamics also make things more complicated. Students who are separated from their parents or who live with family members outside their nuclear unit struggled to answer some questions. Student Al Nagib couldn't finish his FAFSA until he could access his mother's tax information. His parents filed their taxes separately, so he wasn't able to use the IRS Direct Retrieval tool.

Out of the four students who tried to complete the FAFSA on the day that Turner visited T.C. Williams, only one was successful (Turner, nprEd, 11/16). 

Texting students could give them the push they need to finish their FAFSA


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