Our View: Filling the forms — an easier way

February 13, 2017 GMT

Human beings are notorious for putting off complicated projects — that can be true whether planning for retirement or trying to navigate the many steps necessary to apply for college. The challenge, then, is how to make it easier for people unused to the college application process to move ahead successfully. Turns out, that might not be as difficult as it appears.

A study released in 2009, conducted by Stanford University associate professor Eric Bettinger, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Bridget Terry Long and University of Toronto associate professor Philip Oreopoulos, tracked nearly 17,000 low-income people and discovered that complex financial aid forms and a dearth of information about college costs and financial aid blocked access to higher education. Making forms easier, researchers concluded, would help more low- and middle-income students find their way to college. The study’s findings remain true today and offer lessons for families finishing up applications or anticipating applications for fall of 2018.

Here’s what happened. The study targeted low- and middle-income families — selecting participants randomly — who came into H&R Block to have their taxes prepared. Selected families were offered free assistance to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid college financial-aid application. This is a document so complicated that parents with advanced degrees have been known to pull out their hair while attempting to fill it out. With the tax information already on hand and transferred to the financial aid form via software, filling out the aid forms took another 10 minutes or so. By the way, that’s down from 13 hours.

Successful completion and submission of the forms impacted college admission, it seems. The study showed that college-enrollment rates shot up 30 percent for then-high school seniors and 20 percent among the young adults who already were through with high school. By completing financial aid forms, and then getting aid, the students found the path to college was made easier. Students in the study also turned in aid forms earlier, which helped them access state aid before it was all handed out.

The larger message is that by making it easier for families to apply for and receive aid, low- and middle-income students will have greater access to college. One desired solution would be for the federal government to make the forms simpler to fill out and easier to comprehend. There is some movement in that direction, but progress toward simplicity has been slow.

Until that happens, pairing FAFSA preparation assistance and tax offices is a smart thing to do. Community colleges, commercial preparers and even schools can add one more layer to tax season — help for parents and students who want to go to college but aren’t sure how to fill out all the necessary forms. With the H&R Block study, families not only filled out the forms but received an estimate about what kind of aid for which they might be eligible and were handed information about local post-secondary options.

Early assistance, it appears, will increase the numbers of people who apply for federal aid and how many receive it. Some 850,000 students eligible for federal financial aid in 2000 did not finish the forms — and since federal forms are the basis for awarding most state and institutional need-based help, getting FAFSA right matters.

With today’s employers demanding college degrees even for even the most basic of jobs, education remains the path to a comfortable life. We can — and should — do more to help young people realize their dream to attend college. Working together, we can make higher education more accessible by simplifying the steps to get to college.