This college admissions season, applicants will be greeted with a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, thanks to reforms from the Obama administration. Students can now submit the form three months earlier, starting Oct. 1, and must use tax returns from two years prior. While these changes make the stressful process more convenient for students and provide their families the opportunity to better illustrate their financial background, they do not address the larger issue of rising college tuition.
FAFSA reform has received enthusiastic bipartisan support with little opposition both in and outside of Congress. This pragmatic step is a welcome example of Department of Education-led reform that adds flexibility to the college aid process without unnecessary regulations. The ED has suggested that extending the time FAFSA is open may increase administrative costs, but it is a small price to pay for the relief it gives college-bound students. Thankfully, this reform does not significantly compromise a university’s ability to make informed, need-based decisions, a crucial point to accommodate rising tuition and flatlined federal funding. Despite the positive effects of this move, the federal government has more to accomplish — the share of college costs the maximum Pell Grant covers has halved in the past 30 years. The ED, Congress and President Obama should strive not only to streamline and ease the FAFSA and college aid process, but also seek out new means to leverage federal money for students.
Universities must follow the government’s lead and make the way financial aid is awarded more clear and accessible to applicants. The October FAFSA release date could help. In previous years, applying early posed a problem for low-income students. Either they did not know how much they would be awarded until their tax returns were processed months later or, as with NYU, early decision applicants had to submit a College Scholarship Service Profile and often pay the $25 fee to receive a cost-of-attendance estimate. Many private schools including NYU have yet to adopt the FAFSA, or another free alternative, in lieu of the CSS. By using the FAFSA to provide an early and accurate quote to prospective students, a school can fulfill its promise to attract a pool of applicants with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
In such an unavoidable, bureaucratic process, all administrative improvements are welcome. Starting the financial aid process earlier and accepting older tax returns offer planning benefits to high schoolers as they begin the application process, yet these small FAFSA reforms do little to ease the greatest burden of pursuing a college degree. With rising tuition, various application fees and late cost-of-attendance estimates, higher education caters only to those who can foot the bill without assistance. The federal government, in permitting earlier FAFSA submissions, has taken a step toward affordable college for all, and universities and the College Board must follow suit.
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