Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Making the FAFSA More User Friendly

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s always exciting when a solution to a long-standing problem not only works, but is pretty simple to implement.  That’s the impressive promise Colleen Campbell offers in a paper that suggests an easy cure to the sometimes-complicated issue of applying for financial aid.

Most efforts to simplify financial aid have focused on the length of the FAFSA—either there are too many questions, or it’s too hard to find the required information.  Campbell’s research takes a different approach, and asks, why does a student have to complete a new FAFSA every year, especially if their financial information doesn’t change that much? Merely asking a student to submit the same information again can take its toll, reminding some low-income students of the high price of college, and leading others to forget about reapplying, causing them to lose their aid all together.

Anonymous financial aid data was collected by The Center for American Progress for about a quarter of a million students.  The results showed that about 70 percent of all students likely to be eligible for a Pell grant (the most popular Federal government financial aid program) had a change of income totaling less than $500—and that didn’t affect their eligibility. 

While the report suggests this is reason enough to consider going to a one-time FAFSA for all students, others aren’t so sure.  It’s easy to see how low-income students would benefit fairly from filing the FAFSA once, but what about students whose financial circumstances change a great deal?  In addition, since Pell Grant eligibility also depends on how many dependents a family has in college, wouldn’t all Pell recipients have to fill out a new FAFSA when brothers or sisters start going to college—or stop?
This leads to another idea that’s long been floated around—the renewable FAFSA, where students don’t have to complete an entire FAFSA every year, but simply update the information they’ve already provided.  This would make FAFSA completion much easier—to the point where students could complete the updating process when filling out other registration information when they enroll for classes.

Both of these solutions are reminiscent of a recent effort for FAFSA reform that made completing the form a matter of answering two questions. Studies from a few years back claimed that most students, regardless of income level, would receive the same level of aid they currently receive if they answered two questions:  How many people live in your household, and what is the household’s combined income? One study went so far as to claim that 95 percent of all students would qualify for the same level of aid (including no aid) if the FAFSA consisted of just these two questions.

These three very promising efforts at FAFSA reform deserve further consideration, while also reminding us of the very glacial pace of policy change. Combined, these studies question key assumptions of the current FAFSA process, including its necessity for detail, and for refiling annually.  These kind of bedrock changes never go over well with those charged with implementing policy.  While they’re willing to admit the current system is less than perfect, they’re also hesitant to risk what they have to make changes that could lead to something even less perfect than the status quo.

The Department of Education will likely wait and see what effect recent FAFSA changes have on aid eligibility—specifically, the use of income information from two years ago, and the implementation of the FAFSA app for smart phones.  While we wait to see what role those play, additional research in this more radical options would be a wise investment.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The College Applicant’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Completing college applications can be hard work, work that often runs through the holiday season. Since everyone else is taking some time off, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to hang out with your family, especially since this could be your last Thanksgiving/New Year/Kwanzmasakah as a full-time occupant of your parents’ home. How could this possibly be a bad idea?

“My friend,” says you, “you clearly don’t know my parents, or my Uncle Bob.”

And yet, I actually do. Here are the three keys to thriving (not just surviving) this holiday season:

Treat Uncle Bob Like You, and He, Are Adults If you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re smart enough to sort out how Uncle Bob operates — and that’s the key to success. Once he’s through updating you on his thriving business and gloating about the political party of his choice, he’s going to put a large piece of turkey on his fork and ask, “So, how’s the college hunt going?”

You’re now thinking this is the end. You haven’t heard from the college that was supposed to decide in October, and your other colleges are small schools Uncle Bob hasn’t heard of — heck, you hadn’t even heard of them until last year.

And this, my friend, makes for a wonderful foundation for your response.

“Well, Uncle Bob, I applied to Eastnorthern State U, and thought of you when I answered the essays, since you’ve told me how much you love the school. I guess everybody’s uncle feels that way, because the college is weeks behind in admissions decisions, but I should hear by Super Bowl.

“I know Mom has told you about my other schools, where some of the students major in the History of Haiku and take classes like Fruit Leather in a Modern Society. I won’t hear from them until spring, but if I decide to attend one of them, I’ll be sure to bring a flare gun with me to campus, in case they try to force feed me with tofu.”

At this point, Uncle Bob will look at you, chuckle a little, and then go back to talking about the glory, or evils, of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Welcome to adulthood.

Your Applications and Black Saturday The next holiday hurdle is the Saturday after Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or...) when even the adults are ready for a break from each other. This is typically the time when your parents — who love you — will say, “Honey, Uncle Bob is going out to lunch with us. Don’t you think this would be a good time to work on your college essays?”

This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, “I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.”

And as you put your earphones back on to fall under the spell of Lady Gaga, you will see your parents weep with amazement and joy. Their widdle baby is all growed up.

Remember the Reason for the Season You have parents who love you, an Uncle Bob who is the lovable kind of crazy, and a world of possibilities awaiting you in college. If ever there was a time for gratitude, it is now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Before You Yell at Your School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

You’ve worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.

Until they got the e-mail.

“Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application.”

At this point, you’ve decided this is personal, so even though it’s 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.

Boy, did you just blow it. Here’s why:

Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn’t said “Forget it”; they’ve said, “We need something.” You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up—so the transcript might not be in your child’s file, but it is in the college’s application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor—the one you just called incompetent—sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don’t want another one. If the transcript is already in the college’s system, they really don’t want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child’s file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it’s their application), but it’s likely you want the school counselor to call. You know—the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.
This isn’t to say they won’t help you and give your child their full support, but if you’ve just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you’ve now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don’t know what you’re doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you’ve just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?

You’ve just left an impression you can’t erase. Let’s say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child’s file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they’d like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is—you guessed it—the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child’s ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that’s what the counselor has experienced. This isn’t about a grudge; this is about their experience.

It’s easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.