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Dept. of Education makes it easier to complete FAFSA

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In an effort to further simplify the college application process, the U.S. Department of Education has released a new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to ease the financial aid application for students and their families.

The changes, which include shorter questions and a color-coding system to help applicants stay organized, are an annual occurrence, said director of financial aid Mary Morrison.(ANASTASIA YEE/The Stanford Daily)

“The idea in the government is to make it so simple that low-income families wouldn’t be afraid,” she added.

Results from a study conducted by Stanford’s School of Education in 2009 in collaboration with Harvard, the University of Toronto and the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that making it easier for parents to fill out the FAFSA form, even if just with the help of their children, boosted college enrollment rates by 30 percent.

Efforts to drastically change the FAFSA began two years ago, with a 25 percent reduction in questions, according to a briefing from Education Secretary Arne Duncan. However, a national study from Gallup and Sallie Mae, the nation’s only financial services company that specializes in education, showed that 50 percent of college-bound families did not fully complete the FAFSA before sending it in and 28 percent of families did not submit the form at all.

Families said that “they did not complete the form because they were not aware or did not think they would qualify for aid,” wrote Sallie Mae spokeswoman Erica Eriksdotter in an e-mail to The Daily.

In order to facilitate applying for student aid through the FAFSA, from which students can receive grants of up to $5,000, both Sallie Mae and the FAFSA website offer tips and how-to videos. The former will host an online chat forum on Jan. 27, where parents and students can receive live help from certified financial planners on how to fill out the forms and how best to save money on higher education costs.

However, outside help is not necessary to facilitate applying for financial aid at all schools, Morrison said. In fact, the numbers of financial aid applicants continue to increase for Stanford, where the FAFSA is required for entering students along with the CSS Profile and parents’ W2 tax forms.

“At a place like Stanford, federal aid is wonderful, but it isn’t what pays most [of the costs],” Morrison said. “FAFSA really only deals with federal grants, which are not anywhere near enough to pay for coming to Stanford. We have to supplement with our own endowment and our own scholarship funds.”

Morrison explained that even for state schools and community colleges, a shorter FAFSA might not do the trick. Plenty of students are still unaware that when they apply there are actually possibilities of getting aid.

“Many schools use their own form or say they don’t have any money,” she said, adding, “There are good stats out there that you can find that show families just don’t think there’s any money out there.”

As a result, Stanford has taken matters into its own hands. The University’s financial aid officers themselves often visit or get invited to high schools “so parents better get familiar with the forms.”

But families need more than just an easier form.

“Since it costs at least $25,000 to go to a state school, having someone pay $5,000 doesn’t exactly solve the problem,” said Morrison. “We’re going to need more information to help people.”

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