With 110 questions and multiple supplementary forms, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) poses a daunting challenge for any high school student or parent; and, potentially, an even bigger challenge for students who will be the first in their families to go to college.
The FAFSA is the main tool many colleges and universities across the nation use to determine a student's ability to pay for their education, and their eligibility for need-based financial aid. Some students simply give up before they even complete the form, potentially leaving thousands of dollars on the table.
In 2014-2015, about two-thirds of the nation's full-time students paid for college with the help of financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. Approximately 57 percent of financial aid dollars were awarded to undergraduates through grants, and 34 percent via federal loans.
Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access & Success, called the FAFSA the "gateway" to government aid and federal loans.
College financial aid professionals and high school guidance counselors understand the finer points of the FAFSA, but nonetheless feel the pain of students and families.
David Gelinas, Davidson's director of financial aid, visits high schools to talk about financial aid applications. He covers the types of aid that are available, how to apply for it, the specific forms to fill out, and defines some of the terms used on the forms.
"There are a lot of common mistakes we see with the FAFSA application," Gelinas said.
Some of those mistakes include transposing digits in numbers, leaving items blank that require a response and misreporting the student's planned degree pursuit—for instance, a number of incoming first-year students indicate on their FAFSA that they are enrolling for a graduate degree program, not entering college as a first-time undergraduate.
Now, a growing number of experts and politicians have taken an interest in creating an easier, more streamlined FAFSA process. National College Access Network (NCAN) recently tapped members of the Davidson College Advising Corps (CAC) to provide insight during a congressional briefing on FAFSA simplification.
The Davidson CAC places recent college graduates in underserved, rural high schools in Western North Carolina to supplement the work of overtaxed high school guidance counselors, so corps members are well-positioned to offer commentary on the financial aid application process.
CAC adviser Annie Wells '14 traveled from Statesville High School in North Carolina to Washington, D.C., to participate in the briefing.
As a CAC counselor, Wells' primary goal is to help match the students she works with to the colleges of their choice, and that process includes navigating the FAFSA.
The briefing was hosted by NCAN. Each member organization, including Davidson CAC, brought a student and a practitioner—in this case Wells and one of her former students—to speak about their experience with the FAFSA and how it might be simplified.
Last year, the CAC advisers served 114,900 students, who submitted more than 200,000 college applications.
"The high-school students we serve are typically first in their family to go to college," said Mary Alice Katon, director of Davidson's CAC. "Their parents did not go through this process, and so they rely on their guidance counselors and our college advisers to help them figure it out."
The congressional briefing was attended by approximately 75 individuals—congressional staffers, college access practitioners and interested policy professionals—who discussed ways to simplify the FAFSA, and the role advisers play in the financial aid process.
NCAN has developed and tested a streamlined FAFSA, and they are hopeful that policy practitioners will consider their proposal.
After the briefing, the Davidson CAC team met with staffers from Rep. Virginia Foxx's office. Foxx represents North Carolina's 5th Congressional District, which includes many schools where CAC members work. Foxx is chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which works on higher education issues.
Davidson CAC recruits new advisers annually. Current Davidson seniors and recent graduates are encouraged to apply. For more information, call or email Mary Alice Katon, program director, at 704-280-7580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bridget Lavender '18