Obama makes FAFSA easier for students

Federal forms ask 26 less questions beginning January

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it will simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in an effort to increase college enrollment among low and middle income students.

The changes include streamlining the application’s Web site and eliminating 26 questions from the form, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Norton Grubb, professor at the UC Berkeley graduate school of education, said he thinks the changes will increase the accessibility of the application and higher education itself.

“Most high school counselors think the older FAFSA was a real barrier because students and parents couldn’t navigate it,” Grubb said. “(Students) gave up in frustration or did not apply for student aid they could otherwise have gotten.”

Starting in January 2010, students will be able to retrieve relevant tax information from the IRS Web site needed to complete the online FAFSA, according to an Obama administration press release.

The administration will introduce legislation to Congress to eliminate 26 questions that require information not available from the IRS.

The changes are the latest move by the administration in an effort to improve access to college education, including increasing the amount of federal loans to college students contained in the federal stimulus package.

Some of the federal aid reforms are already in effect, including new online features that improve navigation of the FAFSA Web site and provide instant estimates for Pell Grants.

“Very few percentages of people who begin the application process don’t complete it,” said Roberta Johnson, associate director of Financial Aid at UC Berkeley. “That problem just hasn’t applied to our particular population.”

Higher education experts said the reforms could have an impact on students nationwide.

“I think that for some people (the changes) will have a big impact,” said Jessika Jones, policy analyst at the California Postsecondary Education Commission. “The financial aid process itself creates an access barrier, particularly for non-English speaking families.”

She said first-generation college students often face hurdles when applying for loans.

“With education loans, it’s harder for (non-English speakers) to take on mass amounts of debt, it’s intimidating to them especially when you’re looking at mass amounts of paper,” Jones added.

Autif Kamal, a fifth year philosophy major at UC Berkeley, said he did not have excessive difficulty completing the paperwork, but the streamlined application process could make the task easier.

“I never finished (FAFSA) in one day, probably in one to two days,” he said. “(The paperwork) doesn’t make it daunting-just tedious.”

Because of the economic downturn, more students will be applying for aid and less money will be available, Jones said.

“I think more students will be filling out the FAFSA because private lines of credit are not as available anymore,” she said. “Who knows in the end if it will all balance out.”

Javier Panzar

Daily Californian, UC Berkeley