Improving Forms

Published by Financial Aid Consulting on Thursday, 7th June 2018 - 12:00PM in The Forms

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I included this article in two places-My Commentaries and the Forms section. Beyond my advice, it is important to understand how the form is handled and what can be done to improve it. 

Financial Aid Forms Need An Overhaul

by Howard Freedman

Copyright 2019 Financial Aid Consulting. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced mechanically, electronically, by photocopying or by any other means without expressed written permission of the author.

Howard can be reached at finaidguy@gmail.com

One of the most powerful financial aid forms is the FAFSA. It's a tool for determining a family's expected family contribution and the need for a fixed amount of federal and often institutional aid. The FAFSA is available each October requiring primarily prior year's income and limited asset related information. Most applicants will soon realize that It is by no means a perfect measure of a family's wealth or ability to pay. As a simple example, a person with little to no income living in a $2 million estate as their primary home would be considered needy. On the other hand, a family working multiple jobs with a high income living in a rented apartment to pay for bare necessities may have a higher Expected Family Contribution and not be considered needy for financial aid. Yes, any financial aid can be appealed for more, but why create all of the extra work? It just doesn't make sense!

The name FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) also starts with the letter F, which could start an acronym for Fear for those who first encounter it. On the positive side, the form, itself has been streamlined and less complex to complete, yet, in my opinion, it is not fully error-free, or not fully logical for determining a family's ability to pay for college.

Although high schools and outside agencies have done a noble job presenting this do it your self-form, many parents are overwhelmed, discouraged, and yet fearful of the future. It is a free form just as the IRS form 1040 or applications for a loan, yet the US Dept of Education discourages and even threatens those who charge for helping complete these forms. What they fail to realize is not everybody is dishonest, expensive or just charge to complete forms. What clients are happy to pay for is a higher level of support, privacy, a thorough review of their information, recommendations for next steps and a dedicated resource that can maintain confidentiality throughout a much longer process. Clients can make their own decisions to seek professional services that extend above or beyond what they can do on their own or just doing like going through the process on their own.

Looking at the bigger picture-The problem does not lie with the preparer as much as it does with the validity of the information reported and the scope of the algorithms that define a family's expected contributions to pay for college. Beyond that, there are other behind the scenes factors that trigger red flags caused by conflicting or questionable information that may result in a verification process or need to provide additional information that may cause financial aid to be at risk.

Though the focus is on simplifying the FAFSA, it may be doing so at the costs of overlooking the more important information. I am and always will be a proponent of process improvements and simplification to eliminate rework and improve quality. On the other hand, the whole process, just not one aspect of completing a form must be evaluated for determining if the highest quality of data is producing the expected results. To be more specific, the FAFSA evades questions about debt, special circumstances, more definitive types of assets, true versus estimated expenses, short and long-term debt, net income, credit scores and a multitude of other factors that can determine how much a family may afford to pay college. It also omits any factors regarding a student's merit accomplishments, test scores or other demographics which are done more through the back end of the admissions process rather than through a financial aid portal. Recognizing that a small percentage of colleges require students to answer more in-depth questions on a CSS Financial Aid profile, the FAFSA is used by all students seeking financial aid.

Bear in mind that you may be read these remarks and realize that there are net price calculators, college by college statistics and a wealth of other valuable information to project financial aid, describe average merit and need-based financial aid and so on. Yet with these all taken together, they fail to answer the questions about whether the applicant and their family can afford college and sustain long-term debt down the road.

The bottom line is that Fear of the FAFSA is not the real issue. What is, is the understanding that paying for college requires a strategy where one size does not fit all

The FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other forms need to be reinvented by accumulating and factoring in other important and realistic data that may take more time to complete on the front end but yield a better long-term payback to those that are most in need.

My role, as a financial aid consultant, has always been to be realistic, fair and give the parents the needed information to complete forms and then knowing what to do further down the path to college. I know the ins and outs of the financial forms but would do my clients an injustice to focus on the form rather than providing them solutions for the bigger picture.

The FAFSA It will continue to be refined but also needs the input from practitioners, consultants, financing professionals and yes, parents and students to provide a more objective way of defining and fulfilling the financial need for college. Colleges also have to do their part by lowering costs, finding ways to more fully utilize their campus facilities and offer more equitable financial aid awards and less costly loan options.


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