Simplify Student Aid? It’s Not so Simple


On January 30, the United States Department of Education announced a delay in release of student information collected on the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) form. This further complicates the rollout of the “simplified” FAFSA.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington negotiated bipartisan legislation to simplify the FAFSA. By the time the bill passed in November 2023 submissions were already delayed. The traditional opening of the FAFSA application was early October and colleges received the information shortly thereafter. 

Colleges have now been informed that they will not receive FAFSA information, which informs their financial aid offers, until March. Applicants usually need to review aid offers before making attendance decisions. Compounding the problem, many colleges require their first-year applicants to decide if they will enroll by May 1. Given the squeeze, some institutions are starting to consider delaying “decision day.”

How did “simplification” get so complicated? A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2018 asked why graduating seniors did not complete the FASFA and the form itself came under attack. Of the respondents, 23% indicated they did not have enough information about how to complete a FAFSA, 15% did not know they could complete a FAFSA, and 9% thought the FAFSA forms were too much work or too time-consuming.

In 2020, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee pushed for FAFSA form simplification in his last Senate education committee meeting before retirement. Sen. Patty Murray then guided the legislation through that committee. After multiple delays, the simplified form launched on December 30, 2024. 

From the start, the new form introduced new challenges. Online application forms were only available for limited windows of time because of periodic “maintenance pauses.” Both financial aid professionals and families reported the form was “practically unusable.” Families and schools are struggling to understand new rules around issues such as funding for siblings who are in school at the same time. The Department of Education characterized initial access as a “soft launch” and urged families not to rush to complete the form because they would “have ample time” to complete FAFSA. 

The soft launch did allow for continued tweaking of the web site. By January 30, the Department of Education reported that 3.1 million FAFSA forms had been submitted, compared to previous years, when about 18 million applications were received. Technically, there is still time, as the federal deadline for submission is June 30. Catch-22: most institutions have an earlier deadline so they can provide financial aid offers prior to May 1. 

State-based completion rates are not yet available for 2024. In recent years Tennessee, the home of Sen. Alexander, had the highest FAFSA completion rate in the country. Completion rates in Washington, home of Sen. Murray, are the 8th lowest. Last year, 74% of high school graduates in Tennessee completed the “complicated” FAFSA while only 44% of Washington students completed the form.

Factors other than the form could help explain the difference. The 2018 Department of Education study found that the greatest inhibitors to FAFSA completion related to income and eligibility. Of those surveyed 33% thought they or their family could afford school or college without financial aid while 32% thought they or their family may be ineligible or may not qualify for financial aid. 

Are families in Washington making high enough salaries that they can pay for college themselves and/or do not qualify for financial aid? Washington State average incomes at $89,430 are higher than the national average of $74,580, but some states with even higher average incomes have higher completion rates. For example, in New Jersey, with an average income of $92,340, 63 percent of high school students complete the FAFSA.

Of survey respondents 28% indicated they didn’t want to take on debt. Washington students who apply for financial aid can substantially reduce the net cost of attending college without incurring any debt. For example, the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in-state students who attend the University of Washington and live on campus need to budget $32,090. But for those who obtain grants, which do not have to be repaid, average net cost is $10,603. Even those with family income of more than $110,000 received an average of $4,850 in grant aid at UW.

The New America think tank, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote in 2023 that “Washington has generous financial aid programs, but not enough students take advantage of them.” Among those programs are the Washington College Grant, which offers support for college or career training to anyone with a family income of less than $112,500, and the College Bound Scholarship which is designed for low-income families. 

Finally, 22% of respondents to the 2018 survey indicated they did not complete the FAFSA form because they do not plan to continue education after high school. That raises the question whether college-going rates are lower in Washington than elsewhere. Census data reveals that 29% of Washington high school graduates earn a bachelor’s degree. That is lower than the national average of 34%. But several states with lower degree-earning rates have higher FAFSA completion rates. For example, in Illinois only 27% of high school graduates earn a bachelor’s degree, but 66% complete the FAFSA.

As someone who has lived in both Tennessee and Washington and been engaged with higher education in both states, I suspect that the primary difference is in the messaging. The Tennessee Promise was launched with the promise of two years of free community college for ANYONE in the state who completed the FAFSA and met eligibility requirements for admission. The message was simple.

The Washington College Grant is arguably more generous, but the messaging is more muddy. The website promoting the grant indicates: “The amount you receive depends on family size, income, and the cost of your school or program.” It indicates college or career training for a family of four earning less than $73,000 COULD be free. That’s much more nuanced than “free for all.”

Clearly the messaging about grant-based funding in Washington needs to be simplified. Possibly that can be done without all the complications and delays of FAFSA “simplification.”

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


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