Less paperwork, more college
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The last season of The West Wing aired in 2006, but one scene is still stuck in my mind.  Toby Ziegler, one of the most down-to-earth characters on the show, is having a drink after a long day on the road with President Bartlett’s campaign.  He ends up chatting with the guy next to him at the hotel bar, a father worried about paying for college for his daughter. "It should be a little easier," he tells Toby. "Just a little easier."

He’s right.  Paying for college is unnecessarily difficult. These days most attention is being paid to how much college costs, but there are other broken parts of the aid process that get between families and their college dreams.


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is one of the worst. It’s too long, asks for a lot of personal information, and practically requires a college degree just to complete.  There’s been progress. In the past few years, steps have been taken to shorten the process by allowing families to use older tax forms. Some information is now being imported directly from the IRS.  And efforts are underway to simplify the questions asked.  That’s all good news.

Yet some very basic problems persist.

Here’s a big one:  Why does a family with very little money who manages to file the FAFSA when their child starts college, have to re-file that form year after year even though nothing has changed?  Families whose children are receiving Pell Grants have already demonstrated the need for support—if their kids keep enrolling, do we really need to keep putting them through a bureaucratic ringer?

Sadly, that’s exactly what we do.  Not only do students “Hafta FAFSA” when they start college, but they have to do it again (year 2), and again (year 3), and again (year 4)—and, let’s be honest, since time to degree is rising, again (year 5) and again (year 6). 

This isn’t easy on students or their families, and over time they fail to re-file the form.  Researchers at the University of Virginia estimate that nationwide, 1 in 6 Pell recipients enrolled in the spring do not file their FAFSA for the fall semester. Among those who show up in the fall, 1 in 10 have not re-filed—and this includes students in good academic standing.  The result is that they miss out on money, even as the price of staying in school climbs ever higher. In my own research, I have found that many students first realize that something is amiss when their much-needed aid fails to arrive.  This nasty surprise leaves them short of the funds they often need to succeed in college. Far too often, they end up dropping out entirely.

Are students who do not re-file the FAFSA lazy?  It’s unlikely.  The complexity of the process, confusion about the seemingly inane requirement to re-file even when one is attending the exact same college, and difficulty convincing one’s parents to dig up the relevant information again and again—all of these barriers have been documented by researchers like me, who have conducted interviews and surveys with thousands of students.  

The goal of an annual requirement is to prevent federal aid dollars from going to students who have experienced meaningful upward changes in family income and wealth.  This is a solution in search of a problem.  The data is crystal clear – during their time in college, Pell recipients rarely experience significant positive changes in their family circumstances.

Making the FAFSA a one-time thing for Pell recipients would make life a little bit easier, giving students and their families more time for work, studies, and the rest of life. That’s why Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Trump officials approve Georgia plan to remove healthcare.gov as enrollment option House committee subpoenas Education Department staff over for-profit colleges MORE (D-Va.) just introduced a bill to ensure that students with relatively simple situations—those who aren’t married, don’t have kids, and are younger and dependent on their parents—have to file just once. If their needs change and they want to see if they can get more financial aid, they can always file again. But if Scott’s bill passes, they won’t have to.

America needs more students starting college to actually finish those degrees.  Eliminating unnecessary paperwork is a step in the right direction.  Josiah Bartlett won’t ever get a chance to sign that bill.  But Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE should consider sending it to the real President instead.

Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University and author ofPaying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,” coming in September from the University of Chicago press.