2020 NASFAA Robert P. Huff Golden Quill Award: Center for American Progress

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

One issue that virtually everyone in higher education appears to agree on is the fact that the FAFSA can be too complicated and burdensome for students to complete every year. But while there have been several small changes made and proposals to overhaul the process, the application in roughly its same form has been a burden to students year after year.

That's why the postsecondary education team at Center for American Progress (CAP), a public policy research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., developed a model in which students only had to complete it one time to know their financial aid package for their entire collegiate career.

"FAFSA simplification would be great on a yearly basis, but if you're able to shift the conversation to not ‘What is my aid package this year?' to instead ‘What is my aid package for my time in college?' I think that opens up a lot of other intriguing policy options about how we communicate paying for and affording college for students and their families," said Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at CAP.

Miller's colleagues CJ Libassi and Colleen Campbell, who are both no longer with CAP, set out on this ambitious undertaking by first gathering data from nearly a quarter of a million students from 27 institutions across the country who had filled out the FAFSA at least twice.

CAP's analysis of the data focused on how much students' expected family contribution (EFC) varies from the first year they filed to the next, and attempted to understand the causes of larger variations in EFC. The results showed that for half of all students in the study who applied for aid, EFCs changed by $500 or less for the duration of these students' enrollment.

The report, "One and Done: Modeling a One-Time FAFSA," earned CAP NASFAA's 2020 Robert P. Huff Golden Quill Award for their contributions to the literature on student financial aid. Nominees for the award are judged on the basis of published work that exemplifies the highest quality of research methodology, analysis, or topical writing on the subject of student financial aid or its administration.

While the report was undertaken and completed well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work has become more salient with the economic disruptions forcing many students to request professional judgments to their financial aid offers, a time-consuming process that Miller said would be alleviated with a one-time FAFSA.

"It would hopefully make financial aid offices' jobs easier because we're going to be performing a lot of professional judgments and a lot of FAFSAs coming in" due to the pandemic, Miller said, adding that the financial impact from the virus may linger for years to come.

"So let's not go back and do a lot of checking of how much your income is moving around, because one year of really bad economic circumstances may tell us a lot about where [a student] is going to be for several years in the future," Miller added.

Miller said the biggest benefit from this report and ultimately shifting to a one-time FAFSA would be giving families all the information up front. Additionally, adoption of the model could result in reducing the burden and costs for the federal government, institutions, and students associated with yearly FAFSA renewals, he said.

"If you start to go to a one-time FAFSA, that would then open up all the other conversations about how often we have to redo someone's aid package, can we lock in the EFC for multiple years, etcetera," Miller said. "Our hope is that the paper furthers the discussion on the need to think not just about annual FAFSA simplification, but also make it easier for families over their entire time in college."

 

Publication Date: 6/22/2020


Robert W | 6/26/2020 2:24:25 PM

I generally agree with David S's comments. I also think schools should guarantee tuition and fees for the normal length of time for the program a student is pursing. The bigger problem in higher ed, in my opinion, is cost and not student aid. Many colleges are over ripe for cost cutting and down sizing.

Bob Walker
Tupelo, MS

David S | 6/22/2020 5:52:30 PM

Excellent work, Ben and Colleen! (I don't know the other co-author) A one-time FAFSA would be an enormous benefit to the students and families who need our help the most. Yes, I know that EFC's fluctuate from year to year, but after 117 years working in financial aid, I can comfortably say, show me a poor student who just got an admission letter, and I'll show you a poor student in a cap and gown four (or however many) years later. If your school meets full need and you need to be able to identify everyone whose EFC has gone up by $816, that's why nature gave us the CSS Profile. Go for it. But most schools don't package that way, and as I said, most poor students and families stay that way.

And then take it one step further. A one-time FAFSA can mean a four-year (or whatever the program duration is) award letter. We buy houses and cars and make other major purposes knowing what it's going to cost. We do families a grave disservice by doing aid one year at a time, forcing them to take a leap of faith that subsequent years will be affordable. Yes, it'll take a commitment from Congress to fund Pell and other programs consistently. But let's do it.

This is why a one-time only FAFSA was a key recommendation of the Higher Education Committee of 50, a group whose work has resonated with Congress enough that more than half the recommendations have appeared in legislative proposals. Let's add the one-time FAFSA to that list. It's time.

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