RELEASE: A One-Time FAFSA to Open the Doors of Higher Education

Washington, D.C. — Last year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) provided more than $122 billion in federal grants and loans and helped more than 17 million students access higher education. But every year, hundreds of thousands of low-income students miss out on that aid because they fail to complete or verify the information on their FAFSA form, resulting in worse completion outcomes than those students who receive consistent grant aid.

Today, the Center for American Progress released a new report proposing a one-time FAFSA, where students would only be required to file when they first enroll in college. This would ensure that students can plan their college career knowing exactly how much aid they will receive from the federal government without the burden of completing an annual form.

CAP’s analysis—which uses new data from 27 colleges covering nearly 250,000 students—found that half of all students who applied for financial aid experienced a change of $500 or less to their expected family contribution (EFC), the figure that determines their eligibility for need-based aid. Students who initially received a Pell Grant had EFCs that were even more stable, with 70 percent experiencing a change of $500 or less.

“While lawmakers have taken some steps to simplify the FAFSA, they have mostly focused on the number of questions rather than the frequency of completing the form. This report shows that they should think bigger as we approach the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act,” said Colleen Campbell, associate director for Postsecondary Education at CAP and author of the report. “This would open the doors of higher education to more students, reducing burden and making aid awarding more straightforward for the federal government, colleges, and students.”

The CAP proposal presents a stark departure from the current financial aid system and would require adjustments from all parties involved as they adopt a new status quo. Despite those challenges, implementing the policy for the entire undergraduate population is feasible for the federal government and would help students access consistent financial aid.

The report argues that a universal one-time FAFSA would remove obstacles for all students. Though a more targeted approach could benefit one group, such as Pell Grant recipients, communicating different policies for different students would likely result in confusion and cut into the benefits of the policy. Though a one-time FAFSA would require a legislative change, the report suggests that FAFSA renewal could be drastically simplified to help remove reapplication barriers for students in the short term.

Click here to read the report: “One and Done: Modeling a One-Time FAFSA” by Colleen Campbell

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Kyle Epstein at kepstein@americanprogress.org or 202.481.8137.