The rising cost of attending college has sparked debate among policymakers and the general public about how to make higher education more affordable and accessible to all – from free community college to capping student loan interest rates and providing debt relief. This past summer, the U.S. Department of Education took the lead by changing aspects of FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, filing process that will make it easier for those applying to college to take advantage of federal aid.
Changes include an earlier date after which students can file their FAFSA application and new rules that allow applicants to use older financial information in the form. These changes, although they may initially seem small, promise to streamline the process in favor of students. Past research has shown the complexity of the FAFSA filing process has disproportionately affected and discouraged first-generation and low-income students from applying and thus receiving the full aid they are eligible for. Only 76.8 percent of Pell Grant-eligible students at four-year public universities and colleges applied for federal financial aid, according to a 2009 study by Mark Kantrowitz.
For the first time this year, prospective college students can submit their FAFSA form starting Oct. 1, rather than waiting until Jan. 1. The purpose is to better align the financial aid process with the college application process, according to a New York Times report.
Additionally, the new deadline and rules allow FAFSA applicants to use financial information from the previous year. When applying in January, people would have to use estimated data about their wages and income – which would then require the submission of additional documents for verification. The later people applied and verified, the greater likelihood they would miss out on critical aid.
Federal aid for college is more than just an important resource for students; many students’ higher education experiences would not be possible without it. While there are more fundamental issues regarding the rising cost of college, changes such as those initiated by the federal Department of Education this summer show promise in eliminating some of the bureaucratic obstacles that inhibit students, and making higher education more accessible.