Next year students who go online to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid - better known as the FAFSA - finally will be able to let the U.S. Department of Education get the income data needed directly from IRS tax forms, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Wednesday.
The decision is being hailed as an long overdue step in the right direction. But the challenge now is to get the word out - particularly to students - that filling out the FAFSA soon should be a whole lot easier. Another challenge will be for college access programs to shift their focus to help students - and the people who help them fill out the federal aid form - understand the new reality.
"Especially in times like this where people are worried about paying for college, simplifying the financial aid process is more important than ever," said Edie Irons, spokeswoman for the Berkley, Calif.-based Institute for College Access & Success, in praising the simplification of the FAFSA. The institute suggested the change in a March 2007 paper called "Going to the Source: A Practical Way to Simplify the FAFSA." It was not lost on those who have been following efforts to reform the FAFSA that the Institute for College Access & Success's founder Robert Shireman is now deputy under secretary of education and undoubtedly played a role in the process of making the simplified FAFSA a reality.
Irons mentioned an often-cited statistic that 1.5 million students are deterred each year from filling out the current FAFSA form due to its complexity. Asked whether the simplified version would change that reality, Irons was hesitant to say that the move would actually lead to more students enrolling in college.
Marcia E. Weston, director of operations for College Goal Sunday, a program that provides free help with filling out the FAFSA, says although the FAFSA form has gotten easier, there will still be a need to help students through the process of applying for financial aid. College Goal Sunday recently was adopted by the YMCA.
"We welcome any simplification efforts that will reduce the barriers that students and families face in accessing financial aid," Weston said in an e-mailed statement. "Regardless of the resulting process required to determine eligibility, students and families from underserved populations who have no experience in education beyond high school will continue to need assistance in taking advantage of the higher education opportunities available."
Making the announcement at a briefing at the White House, Duncan described the simplified form as "an important step" toward making college a more attainable goal for America's youth, particularly low-income and middle-income students. The move is part of the Obama Administration's effort to get more Americans to earn post-secondary degrees in the coming years in order to return the nation to its status as a world leader in educational attainment.
Using technology to retrieve data for the FAFSA from tax forms is nothing new. It has been demonstrated in a research project known as the H&R Block FAFSA Project.
The simplified FAFSA will be available in January 2010 for students applying for financial aid in the spring semester. Students who fill out the FAFSA online will be able to indicate that the relevant tax information can be retrieved from the IRS for "easy completion," according to a Department of Education statement.
Though the access to IRS information at first will be limited to online applicants, the Department of Education and the IRS will work to examine the possibility of expanding this option to all students, the announcement states.