Students deserve a simplified FAFSA


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the most complicated aspects of the college application process. With a slew of required documents and extremely labor-intensive questions, applying for this federal funding is an ordeal. But it doesn’t have to be this way — the application process can and should be simplified.

While FAFSA was designed to be a straightforward process that provides students with sufficient financial resources to achieve their educational goals, its effectiveness is hindered by the complexity and sheer length of the application. The 2014–15 version of FAFSA contained 105 questions, ranging from the student and parents’ IRS income tax returns, to the amount of untaxed income received, to the student’s eligibility for different tax returns.

To solve this, FAFSA should cut out questions that are currently expected to be answered twice — once by the student and once by the guardian in separate sections. Instead of repeatedly addressing the student’s eligibility for different tax returns, FAFSA should replace these sections with questions about the student’s familial life instead. Such questions could include inquiries about medical expenses, additional dependents or other hefty expenses. In the application’s current state, if a family were dealing with a costly medical issue, the expense would not be incorporated into FAFSA’s calculation unless the subject were an elderly dependent.

Another problematic aspect of FAFSA is that the calculation of financial aid is only based on financial records, though these numbers do not always provide an accurate representation of a student’s true need. An improved version of FAFSA needs to adopt a more holistic approach, in which other factors influence the amount of financial aid allotted. For example, the current FAFSA only asks for the number of siblings who will be in college during the academic year. A question about the total number of siblings in the student’s family, however, would provide more background to calculate an accurate amount of needed aid. This question would account for the number of individuals potentially attending college in the future, acknowledging a family’s prospective financial burden instead of solely focusing on the cost at hand.

In gaining a more encompassing picture of the student’s financial background, FAFSA would be more accessible to students who may be unable to provide all the necessary documentation. In a letter published by The New York Times, an individual identifying as Dr. Meh mentions a scenario in which the parent or legal guardian either refuses or is not in a position to provide the information necessary to fill out FAFSA. In such a case, the student’s opportunity to attend college is threatened because they cannot force their guardian(s) to adequately file taxes or fill out their portion of the FAFSA paperwork.

In order to provide proof of this fractured relationship, the student would need to present some documentation proving that they took some form of action against their guardian. FAFSA will refuse to provide aid if a student cannot provide the necessary evidence, essentially hindering the student from attending college through no fault of their own. In order to avoid this situation, FAFSA should make the application less dependent on the parent or guardian. The first step of this process should be to lessen the number of financial documents required.

It would not be beneficial to completely eliminate the application, nor would it be ideal to leave it in its current state; If FAFSA were eliminated entirely, a system of financial checks and balances would not exist. In a time when student loan accessibility is a growing problem in higher education, a revised FAFSA application is integral to accommodate a broader applicant pool.


  1. I loved this article even though it’s assertion that the current FAFSA is too lengthy and collects unneeded data is naive to say the least. When giving away billions of taxpayer dollars to individuals with little to no credit history or assurance of success, I think the more detailed the questions the better. Beyond that here are some reasons why the FAFSA isn’t “too hard” or “too lengthy”.

    While the FAFSA does contain 105 questions:

    14 of the questions establish dependency which answering “yes” to any of the first four will result in a elimination of the remaining dependency questions.

    31 of the questions can be also be avoided by simply using the FAFSA Data Retrieval Tool which pulls in all of the income and asset information directly from the IRS (if you don’t know if you filed a tax return, or made money and don’t know if you need to or should’ve filed that’s a separate issue) which is probably the most confusing part of the FAFSA.

    This leaves roughly 60-74 questions that technically need to be answered by the student and their families. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. The only questions I could see being pointless are the questions related to the student’s parent’s highest level of education. This information I agree is irrelevant and could be omitted.

    Asking about medical or other expenses isn’t something that should be addressed or used in initial Financial Aid calculations as it just asks for people to commit fraud. If this was inacted, five years from now we’d be talking about the validity of cosmetic or elective surgery as valid medical expenses. The FAFSA does it’s best to omit lifestyle choices from the aid calculation as this is a very grey area. Specific medical expenses and other “holistic” factors are taken into account at the Financial Aid Office level with something called a “Professional Judgment” so there is really no need to address it at the application level, additionally this would only add to the length of the application which as this article states is one of its key disadvantages.

    Another issue that this article is incorrect about is that a calculation is based only on a family’s finances. This is false. Household size, Number in College, as well as year in college all play a role in the Financial Aid calculation.

    Allowing for a calculation that accounts for additional siblings that are not in college again opens up the application to another very grey area. This would essentially award additional aid to family’s who have children that have decided not to attend college or may attend at future dates but are going to receive large amounts of institutional aid. This also doesn’t account for older siblings who may have previously attended. This might as well open up the application to ask about sibling debt, cost of attendance, or other institutional aid received. But then again that results in the FAFSA being even longer and asking too many questions.

    As for students who have estranged guardians, I can definitely understand the difficulty of this situation, however think of how many families and individuals who could play the system simply by having the parents file separate returns and then having the parent with the higher income claim to be “estranged”. Even with this strict rule in place of requiring parental data from both parents, families still try to cheat the system by claiming to have no contact with a father/mother who has significant income or assets.

    Ultimately, I do appreciate the difficulties that some individuals face when completing the FAFSA but as I and many of my colleagues who administer Financial Aid at the Higher Education level assert, if a student really can’t get through a 74 question application how prepared are they for college? The FAFSA is not meant to be a test however, it’s merely a baseline to provide schools with a starting point when awarding students federal money. Despite the complaints about the FAFSA and it’s length the most common problems with submitted FAFSA isn’t misunderstood questions about income, it’s simple errors like incorrect social security numbers or failure to list income after the family filed a tax return, which I see as more a symptom of people being impatient and failing to sit down and READ through each question thoroughly and completely.

    I’d be surprised if there were any specific cases of someone being denied Federal Financial Aid because they completed the FAFSA incorrectly due to being confused by a section.

    The fundamental issue with completing the FAFSA is not it’s length or useless questions it’s the new generations idea that everything they receive shouldn’t require much of their time, attention, or effort.


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