Free tools to simplify the FAFSA
For millions of college students, 105 questions are all that stand between them and free money for school. In a lot of cases, that’s way too many.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) rivals the IRS 1040 form in complexity. The government’s own FAFSA guide is a full 65 pages long. Unfortunately, the stakes are high for completing it. Submitting the FAFSA is essential to making college affordable for families because the form unlocks federal money from grants, scholarships, work-study, and low-cost student loans, as well as aid from states and some schools and, as a last resort, federal Parent PLUS loans. A NerdWallet analysis of federal financial aid data found that lower-income students in the high school Class of 2018 missed out on nearly $2.6 billion in free money for college, simply because those students didn’t submit the form. One in ten students who didn’t turn it in cited the form’s difficulty, which means hundreds of thousands of students found the FAFSA’s complexity to be a barrier. And the more impoverished the school district, the less likely its high school seniors are to complete the FAFSA.
It’s discouraging for anyone who cares about access to higher education. The good news: There’s help out there. But with some aid available on a first come, first served basis, families need to take advantage of it soon. Here are some free resources students and their parents can use to take the headache out of submitting the FAFSA. (For much more on choosing a college and figuring out how to pay for it, visit my new multimedia guide to higher ed, We Need to Talk: College.)
Get the FAFSA on your phone
As Inside Higher Ed notes, the newly updated myStudentAid app from the federal government “lets students navigate the FAFSA one question at a time, allows parents to separately enter their own income information for one or more students, and displays College Scorecard data for comparisons of multiple colleges.” These are steps in the right direction. Access to a computer can be an issue for some applicants, so this app should ultimately expand college affordability. One caveat: In my experience, government-created apps tend to be buggy and unreliable.
Whether you fill out the FAFSA via the app or on a computer, the government gives applicants a great shortcut to fill in the blanks via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which imports your relevant tax information from the IRS directly into the FAFSA. Just hit the “Link to IRS” button. For privacy and security, the tax information you transfer from the IRS is not visible to you on the FAFSA form. Instead, you’ll see “Transferred from the IRS” in the appropriate fields.
Eliminate dozens of FAFSA questions
A free alternative to the government’s FAFSA portal is Frank, an online platform that simplifies and shortens the FAFSA with screening questions (birthdate, family situation, zip code) to eliminate big chunks of the FAFSA’s 105 questions that don’t apply. Frank also imports personal data from the Common Application used by nearly 700 colleges, saving even more time, and phrases its questions in simple language. “No one understands what FAFSA’s asking you for,” said Frank CEO Charlie Javice, who wrote a New York Times op-ed demystifying the form. “We make the questions friendly, with no tiny footnotes. This minimizes the room for error.” Users should be aware that Frank also offers paid services such as negotiating on your behalf for transfer credits or a bigger financial aid package.
Find a local FAFSA workshop
Form Your Future directs you to FAFSA completion events—workshops that are often held at schools or churches in your area. Some one-on-one assistance could be key to getting FAFSA cooperation from a reluctant parent. The site, approved by the Department of Education and sponsored by the National College Access Network (NCAN) and the Kresge Foundation, also offers a free downloadable FAFSA guide and a trove of data about FAFSA completion rates for your state and city—and is a key advocate for turning those numbers around.