One-time FAFSA could increase college access with little downside, report says

Moving to a one-time Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—rather than requiring college students to re-apply every year—would benefit students, the government, and educational institutions, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) policy institute. Federal officials in recent years have taken steps to improve the FAFSA process, but most efforts have focused narrowly on reducing the form’s length or making it mobile-friendly.

One-time FAFSA could remove several hurdles for low-income students

Asserting that lawmakers should “think bigger,” CAP researchers set out to explore the feasibility and implications of reducing FAFSA’s frequency. Every year, CAP notes, “hundreds of thousands of low-income students are tripped up by the form,” missing out on aid and decreasing the chance they’ll complete a degree.

Further complicating the process, many students—especially low-income students—are flagged for FAFSA verification after submitting their form, launching a laborious process of collecting additional records. Research from the National College Access Network indicates that just 56 percent of Pell-eligible students selected for verification after submitting the FAFSA ultimately receive a Pell Grant, compared with 81 percent of Pell-eligible students who submit the FAFSA and proceed without verification.

Related: Federal aid verification process leaving low-income students vulnerable to delays, denials >

Allowing students to file just one FAFSA when they first enroll in college would not only reduce the burden on students’ time and resources, and the number of opportunities for so-called “verification melt”; it also would signal to students that their aid is stable and give them greater visibility into total college costs, CAP says.

How much do students’ expected family contributions change across time?

To assess whether students’ expected family contribution (EFC) actually varies from year to year—thus requiring annual aid adjustments—CAP gathered data from 27 colleges representing nearly 250,000 students who completed the FAFSA at least two times.

The analysis revealed that the EFCs for half of those students changed by $500 or less. Pell-eligible students—those with the lowest incomes—had especially high EFC stability, with 70 percent experiencing a change of $500 or less. The findings suggest that “implementing the policy for the entire undergraduate population is feasible for the federal government and would help students access consistent financial aid,” CAP concludes.

Beneficial across-the-board

The switch to a one-time FAFSA wouldn’t just benefit students, CAP says. It also would unlock federal resources currently spent processing forms and answering questions—expenditures that could be redirected to need-based aid or institutional support—and would reduce the burden on college administrators.

That said, it would require a significant legislative change via the Higher Education Act reauthorization, which could take years. In the meantime, CAP calls on the Department of Education to implement “a stop-gap measure to simplify FAFSA reapplication and smooth the path toward a one-time FAFSA.” Specifically, CAP suggests asking students re-filing the FAFSA to fill out a brief questionnaire addressing only changes that would significantly affect their EFCs—for instance, changes in marital status or number of dependents—rather than requiring a full-form submission.

Topics in this story
, ,

Next Up

Loan program has parents of college students borrowing more, struggling to repay

Parents of college students are taking on bigger Parent PLUS loans and defaulting more frequently, a Brookings Institution report finds.