Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why FAFSA by Phone is a Good Thing

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s been more than a little scuttlebutt in the counseling community over yesterday’s announcement that the US Department of Education is creating a mobile phone app, making it possible to complete the FAFSA by phone. The app, which will be available in Spring of 2018, is part of a larger overhaul of the financial aid process, all designed to make it easier for students and parents to access and apply for federal student aid.

It’s easy to see how counselors could be skeptical about this move, especially if you’ve ever filled out a FAFSA. Since the form relies heavily on access to income information, it’s pretty easy to compare completing the FAFSA to doing your taxes, where forms are scattered all over the dining room table, and you need access to your online bank statements to stand even a remote chance of filling out the form with any degree of accuracy. Since most phone apps are associated with something quick and easy—ordering pizza, downloading a video—filing something as serious as a financial aid form by phone just seems like a bad idea.

On the other hand, some data would suggest this could be one of the smarter things that could be done to open up financial aid access to low income students. At the First Reach Higher symposium held by the Obama administration, data was shared that indicated most low income students do not have access to a home computer, but nearly all of them have access to a smart phone. This is one of many reasons why the wildly successful scholarship program Scholly started as a smart phone app—their real target audience uses phones, not computers.

Of course, there’s that whole “we need your tax information” part of completing a FAFSA that would make it equally hard to complete the application on a phone, since most people don’t exactly keep their tax information with them on their commute home, or at the local coffee shop when they check email. This may be true, but last year’s change in FAFSA filing asks students and parents to use tax information that’s already been reported, and can be retrieved from the IRS by using the FAFSA app. Now that the security problems have been cleared up, this really does make it possible for most, if not all, of those numbers to be pulled in on a smart phone.

New technology always raises the possibility of something going wrong, but there are two reasons why it’s a good idea the Department of Ed is making this move. First, if a student or parent starts completing the FAFSA by phone app and finds that it would be easier to use a computer, there’s a much better chance they will actually seek out a computer and complete the FAFSA, now that they’ve started it. It may be at work, it may be in the public library, but if you’re more than halfway done with a form that gets you cash for college, your incentive to finish the form is high.

Second, the increased access to FAFSA on a phone suggests users will give feedback to the Department about how the app could be better, and that could lead to modifications to the form itself. Americans aren’t shy about suggesting how tech could be better, and they really aren’t shy about talking about the high cost of college. Social media conversations about any limits the FAFSA app might have could be just what we’ve been hoping for to make applying for aid easier, no matter how you apply.

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