A Better FAFSA: It’s About Time!

All students – regardless of race, class, or gender – deserve affordable post-secondary education. Access to financial aid makes it possible for many students to attain post-secondary education and pursue personal, social, and economic goals. For years, higher education institutions have excluded many Texans based on their race, gender, and wealth. While identity-based exclusions have declined over time, social and economic barriers to access remain. Usually, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens on October 1, however, the 2023-2024 FAFSA opened on December 31 with some improvements. As expected, the overarching changes caused  FAFSA delays and errors, but some colleges and universities will make necessary aid deadline adjustments to account for this unique situation. 

We have a symbiotic problem in Texas. The state provides less aid to public colleges and universities due to the deregulation of tuition in 2013. In turn, state universities steadily increase the costs of tuition and fees. Now, tuition and fees exceed what the state sends. Both issues have resulted in higher costs of attendance and unmet needs for all students, but especially for first-generation students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color.

Unfortunately, low-income families who could benefit most from the FAFSA cannot complete the form due to its complexity and lack of assistance. The FAFSA has been known to be selective over what assets are counted, and which are not. The Chronicle of Higher Education explains that while home equity and retirement savings are uncounted assets, stocks and bonds are counted assets, resulting in less financial aid. In consideration of the racial wealth gap, families of color – mainly middle- to upper-class Black families – may have more counted assets that result in smaller financial aid, but less overall wealth to contribute towards the actual cost of higher education. Counted assets are usually not a problem for low-income families, as they generally have fewer assets across racial lines. 

The FAFSA in Texas

Students and their families can declare income on the FAFSA, which is then used to determine the amount of financial assistance awarded to the student. Federal financial aid assists millions of students with the cost of attendance and lowers students’ unmet needs. Completing the FAFSA opens up student access to Pell Grants, work-study programs, and federal student loans, after which colleges and universities will use the form to determine the amount of aid they should offer to a student. 

With the passage of HB 3 in 2019, graduating high school students in Texas have to either complete the FAFSA, the Texas Application for State Financial Aid (TASFA), or an opt-out form. As a result, FAFSA completion rates increased by almost 30%,  leading to a 63% completion rate in 2022. However, FAFSA completion rates for the past two cycles, shown below, reveal that the actual amount of assistance students receive throughout the process is insufficient. 

  • In 2023, Texas schools with lower income levels experienced a 0.2% decrease in FAFSA completions, whereas schools with higher income levels saw a nearly 2% increase in completions. 
  • Schools with higher concentrations of students of color had a smaller increase in completions. 
  • Completion rates for schools located in cities and towns also decreased, while rural schools had the largest increase in FAFSA completions. 

As a formal college adviser, I know too well the challenges that students face during the college application and financial aid process. Students and their families struggle with the FAFSA IDs needed to log into the system, finding the tax returns necessary to complete the applications, linking the application to the IRS, the application’s complicated language and jargon, and navigating the documentation process to address financial status changes. Many of these issues were exacerbated during the pandemic, once again hindering students of color and low-income students. 

Evaluating 2024 Improvements

  • The new form will expand eligibility for federal student aid to more than  600,000 students from low-income backgrounds and increase eligibility for the maximum Pell Grant to more than 5 million students. 
  • A FSA ID is now required for every person involved with completing the form. 
  • The Student Aid Index (SAI) will replace the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) through the FAFSA Simplification Act. The SAI removes the number of family members in college from the need analysis formula to expand student eligibility. 
  • The definition of “family size” now includes the parent(s), the children that live with them, and the children who receive more than half of that person’s income.
  • The form continues to expand student eligibility to Federal Pell Grants by
    • linking aid eligibility to family size and federal poverty level, 
    • allowing incarcerated students to remain eligible for aid, and 
    • restoring Pell Grant eligibility access to students whose school is closed or misleading students. 

Other improvements to the FAFSA include a more simplified process and immediate access to estimated Student Aid and Pell Grant eligibility. The form is now significantly shorter and simplifies language. We’re hopeful these long-awaited changes will address some of the inequities in the form. 

However, these changes do not guarantee equitable or increased access to college affordability. There are a few ways policymakers and school systems can assist with the FAFSA’s effectiveness.

Recommendations for FAFSA Filers

Completing the FAFSA can be an overwhelming process, even without errors and glitches. If you encounter a glitch while working on your FAFSA, work on gathering the materials you need to file this year’s form and create your FSA ID, which is like a username.

Recommendations for Policymakers

Policymakers must allocate funding and resources for college counseling programs to hire additional guidance counselors or advisors. The extra support will ensure lower student-to-counselor ratios and enable more personalized attention. Policymakers can also invest in online platforms that centralize college application resources, which make the college application process more accessible. Lastly, policymakers can consider completing systems that track and evaluate the effectiveness of college counseling programs. 

Recommendations for Schools, Colleges, & University Systems

High school students need more assistance and one-on-one coaching through the college application process, but school districts need more resources from the state to build college-going cultures. Creating a culture of knowledge around college within schools will prevent students and families from feeling overwhelmed or confused when the time comes to complete the  FAFSA and other college forms. Schools, colleges, universities, and community organizations can develop partnerships to create mentorship programs, workshops, and information sessions within schools. These partnerships could offer one-on-one coaching sessions, college fairs, or financial aid workshops to directly benefit students and their families.

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