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How Much Does Help With FAFSA Boost College-Going?

A lot, as it turns out. A new study by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Toronto finds that young people who got help filling out a radically streamlined FAFSA were far more likely to enroll in college and to receive financial aid than those who didn't have such help. (Read my story on the study.)

The idea of the FAFSA as a stumbling block to college isn't new. The Consortium on Chicago School Research and others have found that the prospect of filling out the financial-aid form is one of the things that get in the way of seniors' applying to and enrolling in college. But this study quantifies the effect of providing assistance completing it, and of doing so in less than 10 minutes, by importing tax information automatically into the form.

(The study says it typically takes 13 hours to fill out a FAFSA. It must have taken me twice that long when I did it. I don't really know. The whole thing was so terrifying and complicated that I have tried to block it out. And the humorous part is that the form is written in language that presumes that students are the ones filling it out. Students. For real. Jeez.)

The feds are acutely aware of the trouble with the FAFSA, and are hammering out improvements, some of which are already available. But if the software used in the study were available to parents, high school counselors, nonprofit groups, and such, you have to wonder what effect it would have on teenagers' getting financial aid and going on to college.

Louis Soares, who thinks a lot about access-to-college issues as the director of the economic mobility project at the Center for American Progress, told me that the kind of help offered in the study is a good thing, because "we know that the complexity of the system is actually getting in the way of people applying to college."

But he also cautioned that care must be used in making the simplification process more widely available. You wouldn't want to create an administrative nightmare by doing so, nor would you want to lose accuracy and consistency in the process, he said.

You also would need to be careful that the "context" of the simplification process is appropriate, Soares said. In other words, what conversation goes along with the FAFSA completion and the discussion of financial aid eligibility?

All good questions as the process of applying for financial aid grows—hopefully—simpler.

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