Fix FAFSA: Five Ways to Simplify Student Aid

Mention the acronym FAFSA to any parent with a college-age child and you are almost certain to see a shudder of dread. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, required for most types of student financial assistance, consists of 53 questions spread over 20 computer screen-pages and is notoriously befuddling. Some parents spend hours filling it out; others hire financial-aid consultants to do it for them. But many, especially low-income parents, become so intimidated by FAFSA that they give up before they finish, even though their kids have the most to gain financially by filing the application. As a result, millions of students never get the financial aid they're entitled to; the U.S. Department of Education estimates that for Pell Grants alone, about 1.5 million students a year miss out because they fail to apply.

That's why Education Secretary Arne Duncan's announcement Wednesday that his department is streamlining the FAFSA process and cutting the application in half is welcome news. Duncan says there are even plans to add a new button to the online application that will authorize the IRS to automatically fill in the required financial data directly from filed tax returns, something advocates have wanted for years.

But critics say a lot more can and should be done to improve this byzantine process, and Duncan says he's open to ideas: "This is just the first step." Here are five ideas he might consider:

*Take his Chicago experience national. When Duncan was superintendent of Chicago's schools, he worked with a state agency to monitor what proportion of seniors from each of his high schools had completed FAFSA forms, and encouraged principals to work toward 100 percent participation. Duncan could instruct the Department of Education to do something similar, or at least use his bully pulpit to encourage superintendents around the country to follow his example.

* Boil the whole application down to a waiver to permit the IRS to provide a family's financial data to the Department of Education, which in turn, would then generate a statement detailing the amount of aid each student could expect to receive.

* Don't wait for students to apply. Instead, the government could automatically determine eligibility based on data included on tax returns, and send out letters to students alerting them to their eligibility and giving them details on how to complete the process.

* Since annual income typically doesn't change much year to year, why not start the process much earlier? The government could send out notices to 8th graders or high-school freshmen detailing how much college aid they are likely to qualify for when they finish high school. Confidence that they will be able to finance a college education could be just the inspiration struggling students need to work harder throughout high school, which in turn will make them better prepared to succeed in college.

* Encourage states to make similar changes so students get clearer and earlier information about the state aid they are eligible to receive.