Columbia financial aid directors support Obama's plan to simplify FAFSA

Friday, June 26, 2009 | 2:01 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Obama administration’s plan to simplify federal college aid forms would alleviate the angst of the financial aid process and could increase applications, Columbia financial aid directors said Thursday.

President Barack Obama wants to make the 153-question form more user-friendly as part of a sweeping plan to put higher education within reach of more students.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who announced the changes Wednesday at the White House along with IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, said the goal is to boost college enrollment among low- and middle-income students.

Both men described the current form as a nightmare. Duncan said it has prevented hundreds of thousands of students from going to college because they could not navigate the form and pursue aid. Shulman described the form as “an endurance test for students and their families.”

Students and their families must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to get any type of federal aid or loan.

Jim Brooks, MU's Student Financial Aid director said in an e-mail that the process is difficult, especially for families new to higher education.

“There are families who are turned off by the length of the FAFSA and the questions that are asked,” he said. “First-generation college families especially find the aid process to be very intimidating.”

Sharon Abernathy, financial aid director at Columbia College, agreed changing the process would be helpful.

“We wouldn’t have as much confusion for students and families. It would probably decrease errors,” Abernathy said. “It can be daunting and a lot of times there’s lots of correction — it sometimes takes the student and family more than once to get it accurate.”

Students seemed to think shortening the application would be a good idea, though they did not find the form as nightmarish as Shulman described.

“Some of the questions are really specific and hard to keep track of,” MU senior Kelley Levine said. “I think it’d be nice to see the changes.”

MU sophomore Cortni Ervin said her experience with FAFSA has been good.

"It hasn’t been that difficult to fill out,” Ervin said.  “It’s pretty lengthy though. It’s a tedious process, but it’s worth it.”

David Busch, a parent of two MU students, did not think the application was difficult. He usually helps his children with the form and estimates it takes him more than two hours to complete.

“You’ve got to be committed,” Busch said. “It’s an effort, but it should be an effort. If it was 20 hours — I’d do it. You have to. It’s remarkable to me that you can get that kind of (financial) assistance.”

He said students who want assistance would finish the form regardless of its length. Changes, he said, shouldn’t matter.

“It wouldn’t allow more people. Who knows why people decide to commit and go to college?" Busch said. "That (the form’s length) is not going to stop them.”

Abernathy agreed the current system is not impossible for a dedicated student to navigate.  

“If a student does want to come to school, they will find a way through those hurdles,” Abernathy said. “But I think for a first time student it can be sometimes daunting.”  

The Obama administration is taking three steps to simplify the form, which some consider more complicated than a tax return:

  • Shorten and streamline the online application, reducing the number of screens by about two-thirds.
  • Create a Web application to use tax data that families have already submitted to the IRS, helping eliminate confusion in answering questions.
  • Ask Congress to pass legislation that removes more than half of the financial questions on the form.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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