Billions in College Aid Hiding in Plain Sight

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With college students and graduates burdened with over $1.5 trillion in student debt, it’s infuriating that applying for financial aid is so difficult that billions of dollars in federal aid go unclaimed, leaving many students deprived of opportunity.

To apply for federal aid, students need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known as Fafsa), which has 133 questions, including difficult ones like what is their parents’ total tax-exempt interest income.

That’s just for federal aid, including work-study. Applying for state aid requires more forms. New York, for example, has 22 grant or scholarship programs with different applications.

Added to this, students have to consider 4,400 colleges with different financial aid policies and then 10 times that number of private scholarships with different eligibility requirements and questions.

A vast majority of students navigate this process alone. They share their college counselors with 430 other students on average. It is therefore no surprise that 40 percent fall at the first hurdle and don’t even complete their Fafsa. And no surprise too that no students complete all the financial aid applications available to them.

The coronavirus pandemic only worsens the situation. School counselors are even harder to reach, a lot of this information is online where students without a decent computer can’t find it, and many families’ ability to pay has been significantly reduced, making financial aid even more important.

The $100 billion in student loans issued each year is an unsustainable consequence, but the most damaging repercussion is the impact on students’ ambitions.

To simplify the process, we developed a free platform, Going Merry, to help students find and apply for private scholarships, college financial aid and government grants, in one place. About 350,000 students and 7,500 counselors use the service.

Along with applying for assistance, students can see what aid various colleges offer to students. Stanford University, for example, shows its commitment to meet the full need to students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. The University of Virginia highlights its same commitment to ensure that out-of-state students know about its financial aid as well as those in-state. Colleges can also feature particular programs. Centre College in Kentucky, for example, shows its Grissom Scholars Program, a full-tuition scholarship for first-generation college students.

A number of sites make it easier to see what aid is available. MyIntuition, for example, provides an online calculator to give students a financial aid estimate based on six simple questions. Another start-up, Fair Opportunity Project, provides free college application and financial aid guides to every public school in America.

Without a simple and transparent process, financial aid applications add another barrier to education rather than removing one. And they make it harder for students who need support the most.

First, the Fafsa should be rewritten into simpler English and redesigned so that critical information isn’t hidden in the footnotes. Second, all states should use the Fafsa as their sole application and allocate their grants based on it. Third, colleges should standardize their financial aid policies. Finally, scholarship providers should standardize their essay prompts to match the Common App.

Our society depends on higher education to help our young people achieve the American dream. Until financial aid applications are simplified, grants and scholarships will go begging and disadvantaged students who should attend college will not. There are enough barriers to social mobility in America. We should not let red tape and endless forms be one of them.

Charlie Maynard is a co-founder and the chief executive of Going Merry, a free online college scholarship search and application service.

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