Spotlight TEDx Talk: Why the U.S. needs to get rid of the FAFSA to open up college to more students

From economist Susan Dynarski's TEDxIndianapolis talk on the U.S. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

From economist Susan Dynarski’s TEDxIndianapolis talk on the U.S. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Economist Susan Dynarski thinks it is time that the United States did away with complicated applications for federal student aid. The paperwork required to receive higher education assistance in the U.S. –  the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — is needlessly complicated, the public policy researcher says at TEDxIndianapolis, and creates one more barrier in the already-difficult journey for low-income students to access higher education in the U.S.

The form, a 108-question application that comes with “dozens of pages of arcane instructions,” Dynarski says, is the first step U.S. students take in the process to receive financial aid for college. The form asks questions about the student’s family income, questions about taxes, overseas holdings and other economic information probably unfamiliar to young students. “I say this as an economist who is used to arcane verbiage; [the FAFSA] is fairly complicated,” Dynarski says. For students who have never had another family member go to college, such a document isn’t exactly easy to navigate, Dynarski says, and since it deals with intricate family economic details, the form isn’t something a potential aid recipient can easily do on their own or at school without their family’s help.

“There are estimates that about two million low-income people who would qualify for federal aid don’t fill out the FAFSA,” Dynarski says. And Dynarski wants that to change — by doing away with the FAFSA altogether. “What is most frustrating about this form is that it’s unnecessary. It is an unnecessary barrier that lies between low-income kids and the education they deserve.”

“Once you know someone’s income, you know if they need aid,” she says. “You can come very, very close to the current distribution of aid that we have now based on these 108 questions by using just two questions: ‘What is your income?’ and ‘What is your family size?’” And the answer to these two questions are already in governmental databases, Dynarski says. Why not ask families if they are interested in applying for student aid when they file their taxes? Why not notify families with dependents how much aid a student would receive before it’s time to apply for colleges? Why not tell families how much aid they could receive if a family member decided to go to college?

“When you fill out your taxes each year, you provide highly-detailed information about what your income is and how many dependents you have,” Dynarski says, “so you can calculate what somebody’s aid would be based only on the information that’s on their tax forms. A tiny little checkbox could constitute the aid application … Imagine pushing out that information to families when it could actually make a difference in people’s aspirations, rather than making them claw over mountains of paperwork in order to get that information.”

To learn more, watch Dynarski’s whole talk below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker is an accredited researcher and economist who studies public policy and education in the United States. Through her talk, she looks at a problem in the current relationship between economics and education in the U.S. and offers a compelling alternative to current processes, based on research and academic study. Her talk is passionate, clear, well-crafted, and supported by data.

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