A $23 Billion Missed Opportunity to Reform Higher Education

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What does the new emergency coronavirus relief package mean for students? Not enough.

Headlines trumpeting the bill seem to pack a lot of positive punch. Here’s the truth: whether it be for emergency aid or FAFSA® simplification, we are still a long way from designing a world where students’ needs come first and education is affordable and accessible for all. 

The statistics are grim: the number of rural students planning on college has plummeted (The Hechinger Report). There’s been a serious drop in college financial aid applications (NY Times). Universities across the nation are seeing troubling academic cuts (Inside Higher Ed). COVID’s impact on students has been devastating, with thousands struggling to pay for tuition, food, and housing [The Atlantic]. Without a college degree, millions of workers are earning up to 70% less than they could be (CNBC). The hardest hit? Women, Latin and African American students.

The $23 billion the new budget approved for higher education will not fix the underlying problems students face. The relief package is a drop in the bucket: $12.5 billion is disbursed as emergency aid to students who pay $670 billion each year for tuition. 

College tuition is too damn expensive. Students should pay less for college. It’s that simple. 

Instead of focusing on this core issue facing college students and the American taxpayers who foot the bill, Congress has made a few minor changes –  yes, minor – when it comes to students paying for college. 

COVID Relief

Congress has authorized $23 billion to assist colleges and students in this time of need. Similar to the funding approved in the CARES Act, half of funds are to be allocated to colleges to use at their discretion (more or less) and the other half of funds are to be disbursed to students. 

We hope that everyone has learned from the first round of funding. We hope that colleges will apply for the funds quickly, implement a clear application process, and openly communicate with their students that emergency aid is available. We also hope that colleges will disburse funds to their students within a couple weeks much like the banks did in administering the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. 

With students missing out on the stimulus checks, time cannot be wasted and funds cannot be withheld for potential future needs.

FAFSA® Simplification

FAFSA® simplification is indeed key to increasing college access and affordability for millions of students. Unfortunately, the proposed changes, which will only take effect in 2023-2024 school year, are not revolutionary. The FAFSA® is already below the advertised 108 questions for students using the Data Retrieval Tool. Taking a closer look, the 108 questions that are said to become 36 questions only apply if a student was to file a paper FAFSA®, something few students still do. Finally, some of the 36 questions have multiple parts, raising the total number of questions back up.

The key barriers to FAFSA® have not been addressed. Features that are staples in any online product today are nonexistent with FAFSA®, like a mobile experience that works, on-demand support, and reminders and tips along the way to help students complete the form. Additionally, questions phrased in legaleze make it challenging for students to understand, especially for households with assets that have been separated, and for divorced or single parents. 

The tools the FSA has implemented to verify the student’s identity and information have created additional barriers. The recovery process for the FSA ID – a username and password combination that serves as a student’s online signature for financial aid – can take several weeks to complete. Verification, the FSA’s answer to an IRS audit, is not only tedious for students and overwhelming for school financial aid administrators but rarely results in a change in financial aid eligibility.

None of these things are expected to change by the 2023 -2024 FAFSA®.

Dismal FAFSA® App Reviews on the Apple App Store:

reviews fafsa

The New Student Aid Index

FAFSA®’s sole purpose is to determine a student’s financial need and, in turn, their aid package. A household’s financial need is estimated using a formula from the 1970s called the Expected Family  Contribution or, EFC for short. As Ron Lieber noted in his New York Times piece, this formula is far from perfect and does not truly give the student and their family a good idea of what to expect their tuition bill to be. 

The EFC is now being replaced by a new Student Aid Index, which is meant to provide students with a better idea of what to expect in terms of aid at each college they have listed on their FAFSA®. However, based on the data we’ve gathered from thousands of aid award letters, we are not optimistic this will be more helpful to students. The devil is in the data. Garbage in, garbage out. Unfortunately, the data is used to determine a Student Aid Index – a raw estimate that is 2 years old – does not accurately reflect the aid award letters that students will receive throughout their degree. This may further disappoint students and add confusion to tuition quotes they may mistake as being reliable. 

FAFSA® Eligibility

FAFSA® eligibility has now been expanded back to the original criteria from the 1970s. We at Frank are very excited to now be able to support students with prior drug-related offenses. We believe this is an amazing opportunity to improve outcomes and give students a second chance. 

Yet, many students who are currently eligible are completely unaware that they should be filing a FAFSA®. Adult learners that now makeup nearly 70% of all students in college do not have a counselor to walk them through financial aid options. Employees taking advantage of education benefits do not know they could go to colleges with better outcomes thanks to the Pell Grant and financial aid. Even students in high school often do not have individualized attention as counselor-to-student ratios are sometimes as high as 1:1400 in states like California. We are still using flyers and bulletin boards as the primary means to communicate with our students about FAFSA®. 

Many other students simply do not believe FAFSA® is made for them. A couple top reasons include students believing they are too wealthy – we’ve had households making less than $60,000 report this – and students having non-American parents. States like Louisiana are leading the way in these efforts by requiring FAFSA® to graduate from high school. We were proud to support them in their efforts as a technology partner their first year resulting in Louisiana becoming the state with the best FAFSA® completion rate. 

The federal government should get involved here. We should view FAFSA® completion like a political campaign. Let’s reach students where they are on social media, online, and in their homes where it counts so that all students believe they are eligible. 

High schools’ methods for sharing FAFSA® information are often stuck in the past


In the midst of every crisis lies opportunity. We need to do better in 2021. We cannot miss this opportunity to reimagine what higher education could look like for future generations. Students need assistance fast. Colleges like Southern New Hampshire University, which just slashed its tuition costs, are rising to the challenge and making fundamental changes to old practices to better ensure student success. They are listening, and more colleges, along with the federal government, should follow their lead and put their needs first.