Simplifying FAFSA Process Will Boost College Access

By Staff
September 24, 2009

A new study has confirmed what financial aid experts have suspected all along: Making it easier to apply for federal aid will increase the number of eligible participants who submit applications.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard, Stanford and the National Bureau of Economic Research, who arranged for tax preparers at H&R Block to assist low- to moderate-income clients in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The researchers then tracked participants' progress to determine whether the additional assistance helped boost college enrollment.

"Making college aid applications almost effortless to complete had an extremely powerful impact on the number of low-income students who made it to college," said Philip Oreopoulos of the University of Toronto, one of the authors of the report, who was quoted in Science Daily.

The study's findings indicated that the program increased FAFSA submissions by 39 percent for seniors in high school; 186 percent for independent students who had never been to college; and 58 percent for independent students who had previously attended college.

Oreopoulos told Inside Higher Ed in an interview that the program is also relatively inexpensive. "We're not throwing money around here, just helping people fill out the forms," he said. "The fact that just doing that appears to raise college enrollment is a result that we're really excited about."

The study underscores the significance of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's announcement this past summer of plans to simplify the FAFSA. One idea he mentioned was creating a way for families to simply click on their online application to automatically fill in information already filed with the Internal Revenue Service as part of their tax returns. That step, note researchers of the study, should substantially reduce the time necessary to complete the FAFSA and improve the accuracy of the information submitted.

An earlier study conducted by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, found that 60 percent of undergraduates and nearly 90 percent of graduate students who took out private loans never completed the FAFSA. Kantrowitz concluded that the complexity of the FAFSA is very likely driving students to take out much more costly private loans.

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