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FAFSA Poses Extra Challenges for Low-Income, First-Gen Students

The questions in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which often include legalese and financial terms that some may find confusing, especially affect low-income and first-generation college students, education experts told The College Post

“Students who don’t have family members who have gone to college and who have gone through the process before really struggle with understanding all of what’s being asked,” Nathan Daun-Barnett, an associate professor of higher education administration at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, told The College Post

Daun-Barnett works with Say Yes Buffalo to help high school students, most of whom come from poverty, transition into postsecondary education. 

Daun-Barnett said he spends the most time working in schools with students who have a hard time interpreting FAFSA questions. Some students struggle answering the dependency status questions, and many males filling out the form don’t know what selective service is. Those who don’t speak English as their primary language can run into language issues when working on the form as well.

“The questions are highly legal and technical in nature,” he said.

However, not all communities have programs like Say Yes Buffalo to help with the transition to college. MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance for the National College Access Network (NCAN), said areas with high amounts of low-income and underrepresented populations, namely urban locations, often have limited resources for school and community programs to help in the financial aid process.

“Oftentimes, in high concentration of poverty school districts, you’ll see very high student-to-school-counselor ratios,” Keller told The College Post. “High student-counselor ratios also lead to lack of time and availability of assistance.”

Kristan Venegas, a professor and the associate dean for faculty affairs at the University of La Verne in California, told The College Post that the navigation of technology can be a problem for some people as well. For example, not everyone has an email address, one of the requirements to fill out the FAFSA.

Another problem Daun-Barnett works on in this realm is dealing with parents and the FAFSA ID, which is used during the login process for the form and began in 2015 to improve security. This additional level of verification is a complexity that is not always understood by parents.

Among fall 2009 ninth-graders who graduated from high school and reported not completing a FAFSA, 23 percent did not have enough information about how to complete a FAFSA and 15 percent did not know they could complete one, according to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education in December.

FAFSA completions this year went down by .5 percent, according to an analysis by NCAN, a nonprofit organization that helps students achieve their postsecondary goals. 

While this year’s numbers may have decreased, completion rates have increased for several years prior. Last year saw a 1.9 percent increase, and the year before completion went up 9 percent. 

“Seeing it tick up the last couple of years is really good, and we hope we see that trend continue over the next several years,” Keller said.

Multiple new tools and initiatives have contributed to this gradual uptick in FAFSA completion rates and to addressing the aforementioned barriers. 

Some of those filling out the FAFSA now have the option to transfer information from the IRS to the form using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). Keller said this tool helps families who may find filling out the financial information to be difficult.

“Now you don’t have to guess which numbers go where,” she said. 

Yet, not everyone has access to the tool. People without access include those who filed Puerto Rican or foreign tax returns. Access can also depend on parental marital status. Keller said increasing access for all could increase FAFSA completion.

Keller added that reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA would make it simpler. The FAFSA currently has more than 100 questions. 

A 2015 change in the FAFSA process allowed for applicants to submit tax information from the year before the previous tax year, also called the “prior-prior year.” Another change came in the 2017-2018 FAFSA cycle, when applications were made available three months earlier than past years.

Last month, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed a bill into law that requires high schoolers in the state to complete the FAFSA form. Louisiana started a similar requirement during the 2017-18 academic year, and the state has had the highest completion rate of all states in the two years after. This past year, Louisiana’s completion rate was nearly 79 percent, according to NCAN.

While measures like these have increased completion, Daun-Barnett said some low-income students still don’t even attempt to complete the FAFSA because they don’t think they’ll be able to afford college, leaving more than $24 billion of financial aid going unclaimed each year.

“We spend a lot of time even encouraging students and families to think about college as being affordable if they apply for financial aid,” he said. “For the students that we don’t get to, sometimes they’ve taken themselves out before they’ve even begun, because they think the sticker price is too high.” 

As access to higher education is extended, Daun-Barnett added that the need for additional student support, information and time management advice is crucial.

“We have to rethink the way we as colleges and universities serve [students], because the needs of the kids we’re bringing in now, who wouldn’t have gone to college in the past, are different.”

Texas to Make FAFSA Completion a Requirement for High School Students