Michelle Obama speaks to students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.,  in February, during a workshop to help students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Michelle Obama speaks to students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., in February, during a workshop to help students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Susan Walsh/AP

Inside the Boring but Crucial Federal Form That Gets Kids to College

The Obama administration has streamlined the financial aid application, but some students need more than a better website.

President Obama wants every high school student in America to apply for federal financial aid. "Even if you think you might not qualify for financial aid, fill out the form. You might qualify," he told Florida high school students this month. Many of the 1 million high school students who failed to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) last year may be unable to attend college this year as a result—or may turn instead to expensive private loans to pay for college. 

These days, 85 percent of undergraduates at U.S. four-year colleges and universities use financial aid to help cover the cost of higher education. The Education Department uses the FAFSA to calculate how much a student's family can pay for college, and thus the student's eligibility for the vast majority of aid: federal grants, loans, and work-study money, as well as some state awards and institutional scholarships.

But the application is more complicated than the average tax return, and low-income, first-generation, and minority students often struggle to fill it out correctly and on time. The Obama administration has worked to shorten and simplify the FAFSA, but many students still benefit from in-person support while filling out the form.

One Saturday morning last month, more than 100 students packed into two computer labs at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md. Many were enrolled at the college and were filling out the FAFSA for the next year; others were high school seniors or prospective adult students. Six Prince George's Community College financial aid officers and an Education Department official were on hand to answer questions.

The free event was organized by College Goal Sunday, a state-based campaign supported primarily by nonprofit and foundation funds. "Most families just want the comfort and security of having someone near them in completing the form, and just knowing that they're doing it right," says Tiffany Reese, national coordinator for the program.

Getting more students to go to college has been a priority for Obama because more and more middle-class jobs require a college degree. Low- to moderate-income students who get professional help filling out a FAFSA are about 30 percent more likely to enroll in college, a 2009 study led by Stanford University's Eric Bettinger found. Using that finding, University of Michigan and Northwestern researchers calculated in 2011 that increasing FAFSA completion would be one of the cheapest ways to increase college enrollment.

The Education Department has made it easier for students and families to fill out the FAFSA on their own by removing repetitive questions and streamlining the online application using methods common to tax-preparation software. The online form—which almost all students now use—skips questions that don't apply to that student, alerts them to glaring errors, and will automatically input tax information from the Internal Revenue Service. It takes most students about a half-hour to complete.

The president and first lady have both held events promoting the new form, and the Education Department wants to partner with states to let high schools know when seniors haven't filled it out. High school counselors are perhaps best positioned to teach students about the FAFSA. But nationally, there are on average about 471 public-school students per guidance counselor, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. And not many counselors have financial aid expertise.

Crystal Trice, 22, had no idea she could access financial aid until she met with Shelby Potts, a pre-college counselor at her Maryland high school. Trice had started dreaming about college in middle school and was a B-plus student, but going to college seemed impossible. "I thought I was basically going to have to pay for everything myself," Trice says—a tall order for a homeless teenager. "There was no way I was going to pay for school off of my own little income, working at a minimum-wage job." 

The FAFSA linked Trice to the federal, state, and institutional scholarship money she needed to enroll at Stevenson University outside Baltimore, where full-time tuition and fees run to $27,082 in 2013-14. Trice is currently working three jobs (two on campus, one at a Burger King) and studying for a degree in psychology and management. She's also working with financial aid officers at the school to figure out her FAFSA for next year.

Potts met Trice through her job with the nonprofit Southern Maryland College Access Network. One of the hardest parts of Potts's job as a high school adviser, she says, is convincing parents—particularly parents unfamiliar with the FAFSA—to relinquish personal financial information, like bank balances, tax returns, investment records, and receipts for federal benefits.

If a student is under 24 (and not homeless, like Trice) her parent or legal guardian usually needs to provide information for the FAFSA—even if that person can't or doesn't want to help pay for college. "At that point, the parent has to make that choice: Are they going to fill out the FAFSA with the child, so that the child can at least access federal loans at a low fixed rate, or is the student going to have to go out and get private loans?" Potts says.

Advisers and FAFSA completion events also help students meet confusing deadlines. The federal filing deadline is in June, long after families file their taxes in April. But 17 states require students to submit the FAFSA before tax day in order to be considered for need-based aid awards. Seven states distribute need-based aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so students actually need to submit the form in January. All this means that many students must fill out the FAFSA early, using older tax information, and then update the form with current tax information later.

Some colleges have gone beyond holding basic FAFSA workshops to teach students about managing student loans as well. At Broward College, a former community college in Florida, a mandatory workshop and other efforts have cut the number of students taking out private student loans by 75 percent in two years, according to the Sun Sentinel.

But many institutions could be giving students clearer instructions. A congressional committee recently criticized 111 colleges for requiring students to submit the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile, a more complicated, fee-based form, or not making it clear that students must complete the FAFSA to get federal aid.

The White House says the number of FAFSA forms filed has risen 33 percent since the 2008-09 academic year. That says a lot about rising financial need, but it may also say something about increased rates of college attendance. "If they don't complete the FAFSA, they won't go to school," says Sharon Hassan, state coordinator for College Goal Maryland. Even in this era when so many jobs require higher education, there can be good reasons for a student to opt not to attend college. Not filling out the FAFSA isn't one of them.

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