This year will mark the biggest change to the federal financial aid process in quite a few years, with students being able to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2017-18 academic year on October 1, 2016 instead of January 1, 2017 using 2015 tax data. This change, known as prior prior year (PPY) or early FAFSA, has the potential to give more students information about their federal financial aid eligibility around when they are applying to colleges. My research on the topic (thanks to the generous support and assistance of my friends at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators) found that most students will see similar Pell Grant awards under PPY than under the current system, which helped alleviate concerns about what PPY would mean for both the federal budget and financial aid offices. However, I remain concerned that colleges will not notify students of institutional aid earlier than under current rules due to concerns about their financial aid budgets.
While prior prior year is a step in the right direction for students and their families, there really isn’t a good reason why many students have to fill out the FAFSA every year. While the U.S. Department of Education claims that it takes the average student 21 minutes to file the FAFSA, this number is undoubtedly higher for students with more complex family situations or students whose parents struggle to navigate the form due to limited English proficiency or the FAFSA’s complicated instructions. As a result, an estimated 10% of Pell-eligible students who remained enrolled in college fail to refile the FAFSA.
In 2013, I wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education with Sara Goldrick-Rab (now at Temple University) titled “Change FAFSA Now.” In that piece, we argued for one-time FAFSA filing to reduce the burden on both students and the U.S. Department of Education. Today, I am happy to see a piece of legislation called the File Once FAFSA Act of 2016, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), that would allow dependent Pell Grant-eligible students to file the FAFSA just once as long as they remain dependents. (Students with large changes in family income could get their expected family contribution (EFC) changed by talking with their financial aid office.)
While I am pleased to support the legislation, I would like to see two additional groups of students become eligible for a one-time FAFSA. The first group is those students who file the FAFSA just to receive a federal unsubsidized loan. All students attending participating colleges can receive these loans regardless of financial need, so making students repeatedly file the FAFSA just to get these loans makes little sense. This would be particularly beneficial for graduate students, who can no longer receive any federal subsidized loans.
The second group of students who should become eligible is independent students with dependents of their own. In the 2011-12 academic year, 61% of students in this category had an EFC of zero—reflecting a large amount of financial need. This compares to just 24% of dependent students having a zero EFC. Moreover, in a 2015 article, I showed that over 98% of independent students without dependents who had a zero EFC one year and refiled the FAFSA two years later received a Pell Grant that year. Therefore, extending the one-time FAFSA to this category of students make sense.
The idea of a one-time FAFSA should garner bipartisan support, as evidenced by a similar idea being a part of former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s higher education proposal. I welcome and support Rep. Scott’s proposal as a first step to helping more students whose family circumstances don’t change much while they are in college spend time doing something more productive than completing the FAFSA.