Did life just get easier for college applicants and their parents?


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Nothing is simple. This is especially true when it comes to college applications, scholarship applications and required financial aid forms, including the often-dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid. But research by Mark Wiederspan, assistant professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and other scholars led to a recent simplification of the form and application process.

Traditionally, students would file the FAFSA during spring tax season of their senior year of high school. Under the new formula, students planning to attend college in fall 2017 will be able to complete the FAFSA in the summer or fall of 2016 using tax return data from the prior (2015) calendar year. Commonly referred to as “prior-prior,” this new system is outlined in detail in The President's Plan for Early Financial Aid. With earlier applications coming in, the federal government will be able to award student financial aid during the fall or winter of a high school student’s senior year, as opposed to during the spring or even after the student has graduated.

“This means that students will know their financial aid eligibility and amounts earlier, and the family knows sooner what their financial commitment will be,” Wiederspan said. “This allows people to plan more effectively, and it lets students consider more options, make decisions sooner and even visit more colleges during their senior year if that is part of their plan.”

There are additional benefits to simplifying this form and process. An estimated 14 million families seeking federal aid for college complete the FAFSA annually. Aid for college is designed to make it more accessible and increase applicants and attendance, but the complexity of this required form used to have the opposite impact on many families. By streamlining the form and reducing the amount of time families must wait for financial aid news, more students can apply to and attend college.

For decades, the application for federal student aid was longer than the annual IRS tax forms completed by most U.S. households. Research Wiederspan conducted and published, along with Susan Dynarksi, University of Michigan; and Judith Scott-Clayton, Columbia University, showed that most of the data collected by the old form had no impact on the outcome of a student’s financial aid award. The length of the form dissuaded students and families from completing it and applying for aid. This was particularly true for lower income families, according to Wiederspan. He said an H&R Block FAFSA experiment showed the FAFSA used to be a barrier to college. Families who did not receive help in filling out the form were less likely to send their children to college.

Wiederspan said that applying to college is not a one-step process. “Students seek out information about particular postsecondary institutions; take standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT, which are required by many institutions; fill out the necessary applications for student aid, such as the FAFSA; and complete college applications, which may also require an essay. Having the new system in place and automatically calculating one’s eligibility for financial aid reduces the multiple steps in the college application process.”