Student aid changes give more students control over their futures
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Policy change works, and at a time when a postsecondary education has never been more important – or expensive — it can work for students, too.

Case in point: an earlier Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and a shift to a prior year’s tax data. Some stakeholders called these regulatory changes implemented last fall “small ball.”

But nearly a year later, we have evidence that they are benefiting a significant number of students — a strong sign that more policy change to simplify the FAFSA is vital for increasing postsecondary enrollment and completion for low-income students.

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Analyzing new data from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, NCAN found that the high school class of 2017 filed 9 percent more FAFSAs by June 30 than the class of 2016, meaning that more than 178,000 more students — over 2.1 million in total — got a chance to understand how they might pay for a postsecondary education.

 

Overall, 61 percent of high school seniors this year filed the FAFSA by June 30, compared to 56 percent in 2016.

This one-year increase is impressive and meaningful, given that the FAFSA unlocks federal aid such as Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study and Stafford Loans as well as some state and institutional aid.

Students who file the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to attend college, but low-income students who need aid the most file at lower rates than higher-income students. The unfortunate result is that students — often unwittingly — leave $24 billion in federal aid on the table each year.

But more FAFSAs was only one of two goals for “Early FAFSA,” as some in the field call it. The other goal was for students to file the FAFSA sooner – as early as Oct. 1 of an academic year, rather than Jan. 1 — so they enter the college application season with a better comprehension of their federal financial aid. And guess what?

By the end of December, 1.1 million high school seniors, about a third of all seniors nationally, had already filed their FAFSA, before it would have even been available to them in the past.

As NCAN member Carolina College Advising Corps’ staff said, “The changes to the 2017-18 FAFSA laid a groundwork that allows low-income, underrepresented, first-generation college students to complete the FAFSA more quickly and easily than ever before … We firmly believe these changes to the FAFSA have given students much more control over their futures.”

The next step is codifying this simplification permanently to make the 142-question FAFSA faster, easier, and more accurate. Lawmakers are already contemplating ways to do so: Rep. Lloyd Doggett introduced legislation in April, and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Finance: Trump says shutdown 'could happen' | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Senate approves motion to go to tax conference House conservatives, Ryan inch closer toward spending deal MORE, who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, previously reintroduced a bill.

NCAN has developed a revised FAFSA that would go even further. The Streamlined FAFSA, a user-tested model that reduces the number of questions by half or more depending on a student’s financial situation, better targets aid to the low-income students who need it most.

Initial data from the first year of Early FAFSA are clear: Opening the application season on Oct. 1 and allowing families to apply using data from already-completed taxes is helping more students file the FAFSA, faster.

That means more students accessing the financial aid to which they are entitled, enrolling in college, and going on to fill one of the 65 percent of jobs that will require a postsecondary credential by 2020.

As our Carolina Advising Corps members report, this year’s policy improvements to FAFSA "make college attendance feel less like a dream and more of a reality" for students least likely to enroll.

Let’s keep the progress going with more FAFSA simplification from Congress.

Kim Cook is executive director of the National College Access Network, whose members in 46 states are committed to helping more low-income students and students of color enter and complete postsecondary education. Allie Ciaramella, communications manager for National College Access Network, contributed to this op-ed.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.