Not So Fast: Cautions About the President’s New FAFSA Campaign

March 8, 2014 | Blog, News

It’s nearly impossible to afford college today without some federal financial assistance, whether from grants, loans, or work-study. The form known as the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance, or FAFSA, is a substantial barrier standing between students and that assistance.

There is excellent research indicating that FAFSA non-completion reduces rates of college entry, and yet one to two million students a year are eligible for aid and yet do not complete it.  This is the motivation behind the President’s new FAFSA campaign, which frames the FAFSA as free, easy, fast, and fulfilling (in that many people who finish the form qualify for some kind of aid–most often, loans). The latest news indicates that the Department of Education is going further, ramping up efforts to share FAFSA completion data with states and school districts so that they know who hasn’t completed the form, and are also considering working with third-party vendors to create better solutions to completing the form. In generally, this all sounds good. Of course, I’m  supportive of efforts to get more college information to students and families, and especially to their schools.  But at the same time there are ways in which this FAFSA campaign could go awry, and ways that could be prevented. My cautions here are offered in that spirit of constructive critique, after all, the President and the Department of Education deserve a lot of credit for going much further to help students afford college than prior Administrations have done. Caution #1: Take Responsibility for Providing Government Assistance in an Accessible Manner It is the government’s job to deliver financial aid in a way that students can benefit from it.  The FAFSA  must be simplified in order to accomplish this.  Sue Dynarski and other researchers have been very clear on this point for years, and the main reason why simplification hasn’t occurred is unacceptable and should not be tolerated: states and institutions of higher education enjoy using additional criteria to restrict access to their dollars.  This is an example of the federal failure to make the best use out of Title IV by including mandatory maintenance of effort requirements for states and schools, and it has to be remedied.  A move toward working with third-party vendors, including Google, could alleviate the pressure to make this happen and at the same time open the door for businesses to profit from the government’s failure to do its job.  It’s quite likely that fraud will occur and the “free” part of FAFSA will disappear– in fact, this is already happening. Consider these recent tweets:


Caution #2: Be Modest About What the FAFSA Will DeliverStudents and families need to be able to respect and trust the government that purports to assist them.  The fact is that it’s one thing to complete the FAFSA and quite another to actually receive grant aid from it.  Many students who get financial aid are left with a very large gap of unmet financial need.  This surprise can derail them, and create a culture of distrust that extends to their schools and the government. It is dangerous to send the implicit message to students that college will be affordable if only they fill out the FAFSA.  We have to do something about the fact that even students from the lowest-income families are left to cover between $8,300 (for a community college) and $12,300 (for a public university) after grants are accounted for.   In many cases, what students will learn after completing the FAFSA is that the only available “aid” is loans.   Or as this student put it:      


Certainly, federal loans are often preferable to private loans, and they cannot be accessed without the FAFSA, but it seems important to be careful to avoid implying that college will be affordable if only FAFSA is completed. In fact, at least one study indicates that college attendance is not enhanced by FAFSA completion when students obtain little to no significant grant aid from the process (specifically, I am pointing to the null impacts on independent students found in the H&R Block intervention).

And so this FAFSA effort must be accompanied by significant work to drive down college costs and getting schools to work with students on planning strategies for how to make ends meet when grant aid isn’t enough.

Caution #3: Watch Your Language

Calling the FAFSA completion process “fast” is understandable if the goal is to get students to simply try to complete the form.  At the same time, it creates risks by urging students to attempt to complete the FAFSA without having set aside enough time to actually do it, and also serving to irritate students who find that it takes far longer than expected. The truth is that the Department of Education only knows the time taken for FAFSA completion among those who finish the process.  The students who start and do not finish could be  taking longer, and it’s not helpful to make them feel dumb or angry that it’s not the fast process they were told it would be. Even with the laudable changes to data importing via the FAFSA,  it’s  important that they budget enough time to complete the form.

Caution #4: Do More to Include Parents 

Several researchers, including my Wisconsin team, have found that the FAFSA is a site of considerable tension between students and parents, creating flash points.   Students who know that their parents cannot or will not contribute to college agonize over the FAFSA, and loathe having to revisit that discussion year after year.  It is critically important that the FAFSA campaign reach out to parents to help them understand that helping their students complete the FAFSA does not mean that they have to help pay for college, and new tools are needed to help students have these difficult conversations with their families.  It is especially important that the Department of Education remember that experimental evidence indicates that simply providing information about the FAFSA does not boost completion rates; assistance with the form is required. 

Caution #5: Pay Attention to FAFSA Renewal

I’m glad people are concerned that available funds are being left on the table for students who could use them to enroll in college, but I am equally if not more concerned that college persistence rates are undermined by inadequate rates of FAFSA renewal.  I’ve found that students are rightly taken aback by the requirement to re-submit a new FAFSA year after year even though they’re enrolled in the same college. By the time they figure it out, they are enrolled and trying to make do without funds they were supposed to have; few manage this and thus they leave.  Researchers Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page recently presented preliminary evidence at a conference that nudging students to renew the FAFSA increases persistence rates of community college students, and the three of us are testing that intervention at a larger scale beginning early next year (and seeking funding for that project, by the way!).   FAFSA renewal rates at colleges and universities should be tracked just as those of school districts are being tracked.

The all-out push for FAFSA completion will hopefully boost rates of filing.  The real question is, what comes next?  It does not appear that anything is being done about the unfortunate late timing of when the FAFSA is completed.  The delivery of aid is also problematic, in terms of the inadequacy of the grant aid provided, the paucity of work-study jobs, front-loading of grants which mean that aid declines as students progress towards degrees,  frequent delays in distributing the funds when students need them, and the heightened risk of the loss of the Pell due to punitive grade and credit requirements. Let’s hope these issues are next on the radar.







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