Simplifying college aid

Posted June 25, 2009, at 6:30 p.m.

Any parent of a college-age son or daughter knows what the dreaded letters FAFSA mean. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid must be completed online for students to be eligible for federal college aid like Pell Grants and for federally guaranteed student loans like Stafford and Perkins, and most colleges and universities use the FAFSA to determine how much aid they will offer students through grants and work-study.

The Obama administration announced this week it plans to simplify the form to encourage more young people to apply for postsecondary education. The initiative is reminiscent of the requirement that all Maine high school students complete a college application even if they do not plan on seeking postsecondary education. In both cases, making it easier to clear the first hurdles in the steeplechase that is the college admissions process can translate into more college-educated Americans.

The FAFSA contains 150 questions for students, perhaps with Mom and Dad looking over their shoulder, to complete in an online form. The form is found at www.fafsa.ed.gov (and not at fafsa.com, which is a private for-profit site some parents have visited and paid for its advice on completing the government form). The form tracks the student’s family’s income tax filing information, and determines an EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. College financial aid offices use that number to determine the student’s relative need.

The form also includes many other questions. It can be tricky to navigate, with its own “save” methodology; it must be updated with the final income tax numbers once the family files its returns; and it is typically signed with an electronic PIN, which must first be obtained at the site.

In January, when the form is posted for the 2010-11 school year, about 20 percent of the questions will be eliminated. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to create a process by which families can merely click on the form to reveal the numbers they have filed with the IRS. The simplification process is expected to take several years.

“Confusing paperwork shouldn’t stand between qualified students and a college degree,” said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. A law passed last year helped, creating a two-page form for some low-income families.

As daunting as the process can be, Maine parents would do well to roll up their sleeves and help their children run the gantlet toward college. Statistics consistently show by age 40, those with college educations have earned far more than those who stopped at high school, even while subtracting the cost of college and money that could have been earned during those four years in school.

Another incentive worth mentioning is the Opportunity Maine program, which provides a tax credit to graduates of Maine colleges and universities who live in Maine; the credit is designed to offset most or all of the cost of repaying student loans, as long as the graduate lives in Maine.

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