Official: FAFSA not accurate portrayal of financial need

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    The Free Application for Federal Student Aid needs to be updated because it is no longer an effective way to assess financial need and distribute monetary aid, the university’s chief financial aid officer said.

    Michael Scott, director of financial aid, said the FAFSA does provide good information to universities about identifying needy families, but it does not accurately predict how much a family can realistically contribute toward tuition.

    “What it’s doing is not necessarily assessing financial need, but the FAFSA is assessing ability to pay,” Scott said.

    The ideal FAFSA form would be shorter, eliminate redundancies and would allow a family to choose to let the Internal Revenue Service release their tax information directly to FAFSA instead of handling a difficult form themselves, Scott said. The FAFSA form is outdated and assumes income earned from a previous tax year will be the same or higher in the year the student will receive the aid, he said.

    “I don’t think it’s reflective of what reality is for the average family,” Scott said.

    Scott said the university reviews the eligibility of a student on an individual basis if there is a substantial drop in income between academic years. He said the information provided on the FAFSA allows universities to determine who needs aid but it is up to the universities to factor in the cost of tuition.

    Mary Fallon, the senior director of communication for Student Financial Aid Services, Inc., said a student filing for FAFSA today would provide information for the 2008 tax year even though financial aid would not be awarded until the middle of 2009. But if a student’s income went down in 2009, Fallon said students can update their FAFSA form to receive eligibility for additional loans and grants.

    Fallon, whose company fills out the FAFSA for students for a price between $80 and $100, said the purpose of the FAFSA is to equally distribute the $144 billion that is available for the 2009-2010 academic year.

    Fallon said her company provides a simplified version of the FAFSA online and then uses the information provided to fill out the federal version of the form.

    Fallon said she could not diclose the number of customers that file the FAFSA through her company, but she said the number is currently about 30 percent up from last year. She said that although there is an increase in demand for her company’s services, she is not sure if it is because of concerns about the economy or families’ attempts to make the process of filing the FAFSA easier.

    Allison Kitchens, a senior sociology major, said she and her husband have always experienced difficulty filling out the application form.

    “The form doesn’t do a good job of assessing how much aid a person needs,” Kitchens said.

    Kitchens, who filed the FAFSA in hopes of obtaining a scholarship but did not receive aid, said the form was tedious and did not take obligations like car and house payments as well as pre-existing debt into consideration.

    Fallon said a primary residence as well as businesses that employ fewer than 100 people are not counted as assets, which lowers the worth of a person and qualifies him or her for more aid. Not adding the value of a house to an person qualifies him or her for more aid because it reduces their personal wealth, Fallon said.

    Abby Baker, a sophomore philosophy and sociology major, said she didn’t receive aid during her freshman year but did receive aid during her sophomore year.

    “I felt it was pretty easy to fill out overall,” Baker said.

    Baker also said that while parts of the application were easy to fill out, she did require her parents’ help to fill out the sections on income and value of assets.

    “That’s not really something we discuss around the dinner table,” Baker said.

    Scott also said the FAFSA has become a means for the government to ration limited funds.

    “You’ve only got so much money,” Scott said. “You can’t give it to everyone, so what can you do to assure yourself that you’re doing this in a somewhat equitable manner? The FAFSA does allow you to do that.”