The problem with streamlining FAFSA

There has been a fair amount of complaining about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the government-administered form the calculates an "expected family contribution" for college students based on their families' financial situations.

Apparently it was just too many hours of work to qualify for financial aid for college, and come on: Why should people have to fill out a detailed form to get money for college?

Mercifully, there are some changes on the way. The USA Today reports that "Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced plans Wednesday to simplify the application process for federal student aid, including a feature that lets some users skip irrelevant questions and a proposal to eliminate other questions. It also would allow families to use tax-related information they already provide to the IRS."

Allowing families to provide IRS data instead of having to re-report the same information is a good idea. But the real problem with the FAFSA is that it doesn't present colleges with nearly enough information to determine how much a student and his family can actually afford to contribute to college.

Believe it or not, the FAFSA form does not include retirement assets or home equity -- the two largest assets that most families have. Given that most families are forced to pit paying for college against retirement saving, telling someone how much they can afford to put toward college without including these two data points is a bit like telling someone that she's fat because she's 5-foot-8.

Of course, lobbying for the need to make the FAFSA form more complex and labor-intensive is not a good way to make friends. But it might be the only way to fix the broken financial aid system.
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