I’m the first in my family to go to college, and I’m deeply proud of being able to succeed in school when there was no pathway set before me. But with that pride came challenges, one of them being the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
The FAFSA was a difficult application process, and at one point we accidentally entered some incorrect tax information. The result? My financial aid award was withheld for weeks, while Temple’s Student Financial Services and the United States Department of Education verified my identity.
I spent weeks anxious about my financial situation and whether I’d be able to afford college. I didn’t receive a finalized financial aid letter until October of that semester, only weeks before my final tuition payment was due.
My experience isn’t unique, as one-third of all FAFSA applicants go through further verification, the Washington Post reported in 2017. This number could increase due to recent FAFSA changes.
In 2017, President Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act aimed to simplify the tax filing process by having individuals file tax schedules separate from their 1040 form, NJ.com reported. But this has complicated the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool, which takes tax information to automatically fill in certain of the application.
Now, many families have to manually enter vital information, like unemployment earnings, student loan interest deduction and more, NJ.com reported.
These changes to the application process need to be reverted immediately as more students begin applying for financial aid, which opened Oct. 1.
This move could complicate that process for the majority of the incoming students, as 70 percent of first-year Temple students receive financial aid, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ website.
“It’s complex and it can be very difficult for particularly students who maybe don’t have family members who’ve been to college before to figure out ‘What are we putting into here,’ especially if their parents may not have been doing their taxes properly,” said Edward Conroy, the assistant director for community engagement and research application at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a higher education research center at Temple.
“It’s not the student’s fault, but then the student is left stuck by not being able to complete the process at all,” Conroy added.
“With data entry, if it comes out wrong, you could get a mistake in the system and it’s gonna be a hassle to get that fixed,” said CJ Retto-Kane, a freshman biology and psychology major who had problems filing the FAFSA in the past and did not receive financial aid this year because of this.
With students manually entering information, they’re at a higher risk of user error through typos and unintentionally falsified information, which could delay the process for students and even deny financial aid eligibility, NJ.com reported.
“The later students receive financial aid information, the more compressed their timeline is between when they receive the information and when that May 1 date arrives by which they have to commit to an institution,” said Joseph Paris, an assistant professor of policy, organizational and leadership studies.
FAFSA completion rates are expected to decline this year as a result of this change, according to Frank, a financial technology company, which helps students file the FAFSA for free.
Reforming this complicated, lengthy and error-prone process requires a collaborative effort from schools, colleges and the government, but it’s necessary to make this system more accessible to the students that need financial aid.
The Department of Education should collaborate with high schools and colleges to get a stronger grasp on how to make the financial aid application process simpler for students to navigate.
As a first-generation college student, struggling to navigate the FAFSA should be the least of my concerns, but it was the most stressful part of applying to Temple.
Education is a right, and every student deserves to be able to finance their education without having to navigate complicated paperwork and wait for months for federal verification.
“The times have changed and the FAFSA needs to change, too,” Paris added.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Paris’ title. He is an assistant professor of policy, organizational and leadership studies.