(Orientation) You want financial aid? Answer 108 FAFSA questions

Zlati Meyer Detroit Free Press

The 108 questions that glare at you from the computer screen range from your age to whether you receive combat pay.

Filling out the form takes hours — perhaps with a celebratory glass of wine or slice of cheesecake at the end, depending on the applicant navigating the income-and-other-queries morass that is this federal form.

Welcome to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known to high-school seniors, college students and people who support them as FAFSA. The U.S. Department of Education form, filled out annually for each year of college, is students’ gateway to low-interest school loans, free money in the form of Pell grants and workstudy opportunities

And headaches.

Experts complain that the intricate filling-out process intimidates many college attendees and parents, especially those who need it most — the low-income families. The form is confusing and long and has the eye-crossing boxes and line items of a tax return, plus the time commitment needed is off-putting for those working multiple jobs.

They say the government doesn’t even need answers to many of the questions — “Highest school completed by Parent” — to evaluate the request for higher-ed monetary help; some queries are merely data bits politicians have added over the years, as if the FAFSA were a mini-Census.

But people do slog through the 10-page form and come out with cash. Close to 12 million students received an estimated $128 billion during fiscal year 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The FAFSA deadline is past for the 2016-17 school year, but a new round of filling out the financial aid form will come this fall thanks to a change in rules for when the form has to be filed.

Pam Bellaver, the mother of Ferndale High School senior Emily, spent close to five hours going through the form during the last cycle, filling it out twice. The first time took an hour, but wasn’t done correctly and the second time took four hours.

“The questions were not the difficult. It was the process…By the hair of our chinny-chin-chin,we completed it,” said the 52-year-old administrator. “I have a 15-year-old going to college in three years. I’ll be prepared.”

It was a challenging process for someone who considers herself an intelligent person. She talked about her anxiety and deemed the whole process “very intimidating.”

The U.S. Department of Education reported that through the first 12 months of the 2015-16 FAFSA cycle, approximately 2.3 million FAFSAs were filed by high school seniors. According to come estimates, there were 3.265 million seniors in the country last year, leaving a gap of about 1 million high school seniors nationwide not filling out the FAFSA.

Leading the current attempt to prune the FAFSA is U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as U.S. secretary of education from 1991-1993.

Alexander maintains that the only two questions that need to be asked to determine eligibility are family income and family size — a one-two punch that would fit on a postcard. He quotes a study that found an estimated 2 million students eligible for Pell grants didn’t fill out the FAFSA, waving goodbye to $5,000-plus in free money toward their educations.

Dan Madzelan, associate vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education, dismissed the FAFSA postcard as a pipe dream. The law dictates what information applicants have to provide and if those requirements were trimmed, it would make determining who deserves what financial aid harder.

“Form follows formula. The formula is a statute says you have to consider this, that and the other. That means the form has to collect this, that and the other,” he said. “As you make the formula simpler, the distinctions between families who are similar but not quite alike aren’t as precise as they were. Under the current formula, two families that are measurably different might be more alike with fewer data elements. The less precise you are in making a distinction between families, the more (it) will cost the federal government.”

The feds have tried to streamline the process. The start dates for submitting a FAFSA are changing this year from Jan. 1 to three months earlier, Oct. 1. Instead of using tax information from the previous year, students and parents will use their income data from two years before, dubbed the “prior-prior year” system. Currently, many people either submit their FAFSAs before they finish doing their taxes, which means they have to estimate the answers and then correct it after they file their returns or they wait until after their taxes are completed to submit their FAFSAs, an especially big problem in states that have a first-come-first-served system. (In 2016 only, students and parents will fill out FAFSAs twice, as the calendar recalibrates.)

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool was introduced in 2010, allowing applicants to transfer their income information from the IRS website to the online FAFSA. (Not everyone can use the tool, though. Examples include students or parents who are married and filed as Married Filing Separately and people who filed a Form 1040X amended tax return.)

And skip logic speeds up the process a bit. Questions are posed to an applicant based on prior answers, so no time is wasted with irrelevant ones. (Others argue that skip logic actually generates more questions.)

Mark Chapman, counselor at Madison High School and Madison Prep High School, is familiar with those who drift away from the financial-aid application process. He said 80% of the Madison Heights school district are low-income, so they host a FAFSA night, during which the school computer labs are open for parents and students to fill out the forms with staff assistance. A chunk of students come from households with no Internet access and many of those would be reluctant to enter sensitive personal and financial information on a public library computer. And parents whose kids are the first college-bound generation in their families are stymied, because they’re not familiar with the whole process. Some are reluctant to share income information, while others might not file taxes at all.

“There’s some frustration in that regard, but then, I remind them … if you don’t fill it out, you won’t get any money. If you do fill it and out and quality, you will,” Chapman explained. “Take 45 minutes of pain in lieu of losing a $5,000 benefit, depending on the person and their resources.”

The FAFSA’s roots reach back to 1965, when students and their parents applied for federal grants, loans and workstudy by filling out forms by private organizations, explained Madzelan. The government funneled moneys to students in need via the institutions of higher education, but in 1972, it became more of a voucher program, where eligible students received notices that were to be presented to the college of their choosing. Fourteen years later, Congress wrote the formulas for eligibility into the law and in 1992, it became one form, the FAFSA which was free, unlike some of the previously private ones.

Despite the federal student aid’s evolution over more than half a century, Chapman still worries about barriers.

“The ones who have the most to benefit have the hardest time filling it out,” he said.