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Feds roll out simpler FAFSA form


The new online version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will allow college applicants to skip series of questions that don’t apply to them and includes help text and easily accessible instructions, federal officials announced Jan. 5.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife and a former community college educator, promoted the streamlined FAFSA form at Banneker Senior High School in Washington, D.C., where college hopefuls filled out online applications that gauge how much student aid they are eligible for.

About 20 million students submit the FAFSA every year.

Changes to the application include allowing low-income students to bypass a series of questions about their families’ financial assets–a technology known as “skip logic.” If the student qualifies as low-income, those asset questions don’t determine their college aid.

College students applying for federal aid for the 2010-11 school year will complete the streamlined FAFSA form. Twenty-two questions and 17 web screens have been eliminated on the new form.

The FAFSA form unveiled this week will not ask first-year students about drug convictions. It eliminates questions about veterans’ benefits, and it does away with questions about legal residency for applicants who have lived at the same address for five years or more.

Applicants who are financially dependent, but whose parents refuse to submit their tax information, now will be able to submit the FAFSA without parental information and qualify for unsubsidized student loans, according to the Education Department’s Jan. 5 announcement.

College and university financial aid officials said the announcement is the latest in a long line of changes and tweaks to the once-lengthy FAFSA paperwork. Some campus officials were skeptical of simplifying a form designed to allocate aid to students who might not be able to attend college without it.

“The federal government is always trying to make it easier,” said Sherwood Johnson, director of financial aid at Brooklyn College. “It’s good to have someone working toward making the form simpler … but if you’re in the business of giving away money, the question is, ‘How do you appropriately put out a document to weed out those who don’t deserve the money?'”

Trimming questions from the financial aid form, Sherwood said, could make it more difficult to determine who deserves tuition help, and how much they need.

Harry Amaral, director of enrollment services at the University of Rhode Island, said streamlining the FAFSA form marks an important incremental change. The application will be reformed further, he said, if questions about a family’s assets–information that cannot be found on a tax return–are removed.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in September that would eliminate those questions from the application. The U.S. Senate is now considering the legislation.

“Anything to make it simpler,” Amaral said. If the House bill passes both Congressional chambers, he said, “most of the items will already be filled out for [students].”

Johnson said the new online FAFSA form automatically will skip questions that don’t apply to certain students. For example, if a student says she is 24 years old–and therefore an independent–the FAFSA web site will not follow up with questions about parents’ income.

“The technology is getting better,” he said. “It’s getting smarter.”

Help text that clarifies definitions for applicants now will disappear when it’s no longer relevant–a change from help text in previous online FAFSA forms that crowded a large part of the computer screen.

Students should take about 30 minutes to complete the FAFSA form, Johnson said, and the simplified online version could save about 10 minutes.

“It’s not like you save half a day,” Johnson said. “If you have the information you need [to fill out the form], you can have no problem. The difficulty is when people see the question and they don’t want to put the answer down.”

Amaral said he has seen infrequent attempts to cheat on FAFSA forms.

“It’s really amazing how accurate and honest the great majority of people are,” he said. “They want to do it right, because they want to help their kid.”


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