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Opinion

Thu., Nov. 9, 2017

Simplify process for college aid

The following editorial is from Bloomberg View.

Occasionally the solution to an underachieving government program is refreshingly mundane. So it is that a simpler federal form may be all that separates millions of poor students in the U.S. from a chance to get help paying for college.

In the 2015-16 school year, roughly 2 million high school seniors – some 60 percent of the total – completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Of those who don’t fill out the FAFSA, roughly half would have been eligible for federal Pell Grants, which don’t have to be repaid. The government awards Pell Grants based on family need, up to an annual maximum of $5,920.

In part because many eligible students did not complete the FAFSA, an estimated $2.3 billion in Pell Grant money is going unclaimed. Because the funds appropriated by Congress last year exceeded the amount handed out, the Pell Grant program is running an $8.5 billion surplus.

Unsurprisingly, congressional Republicans have proposed rescinding $3.3 billion from the surplus, which could prove shortsighted if demand for Pell Grants spikes, as it did during the Great Recession. A better plan would be to preserve the surplus and make it easier for more college-bound students who are eligible for Pell Grant money to apply for it.

The FAFSA was created in 1992 as a single application for all federal, state and college-based aid, and it was recently modified in an effort to boost completion rates. Despite improvements, the form remains excessively complex. It has 142 questions and requires applicants to upload their families’ previous year’s tax returns and document their assets – information that for most is less than readily available. For first-generation college applicants, the FAFSA takes more than an hour to complete.

Some modest steps would help. At least 30 questions on the FAFSA generate a zero response from 99 percent of applicants – a strong argument that those questions are unnecessary and can be eliminated. The application should also allow students whose families receive means-tested federal benefits – food stamps, for example – to bypass the requirement that they provide additional financial information. Most students from households poor enough to qualify for federal public assistance also meet the threshold to receive federal student aid. They shouldn’t be required to prove it twice.

If changes to the FAFSA affect the amount of aid that will be disbursed, however, Congress must approve them. That complicates the process, but it shouldn’t forestall it. A shorter, simplified application would increase Pell Grant spending by an estimated $1.4 billion, cutting the annual amount currently left on the table by more than half and keeping the program in surplus.

The number of Americans attending college has increased by nearly 20 percent over the last decade. Millions more low- and middle-income students could afford to go if they simply applied for aid they’re eligible for. Making it easier for them to do so would be a cost-effective investment in America’s future.