College Aid Forms Prove Too Tough a Test

The college application process is plenty complicated. But many parents and teens are totally baffled by the government's application for financial aid. Some families give up because they simply can't unravel the mystery.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the Boston Celtics get schooled out west.

But first, for college-bound students and their parents, figuring out how much money they're going to need for college, where they're going to get it has never been more frantic.

There are scholarship deadlines, tight family budgets to worry about, and then of course, there's FAFSA, the federal aid student aid application that they absolutely need to complete to tap into the $80 billion available in government aid every year.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, even for the savviest of parents, FAFSA can be daunting.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Except for a dozen cars or so, the school parking lot at Largo High School in suburban Maryland is empty this frigid Saturday morning.

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But inside, the college financial aid counseling center is toasty-warm and open for business. Jennifer Jenkins(ph) has been coming here since the center opened 10 years ago.

Ms. JENNIFER JENKINS: I have six kids. Four of them are presently in college. I am here every week. This is my second full-time job definitely.

SANCHEZ: The stress, says Jenkins, starts with the FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Without it, you cannot get financial aid from the government. About 14 million students apply every year. Just to get started, you need a PIN, a password, the list of schools you want your FAFSA to go to and tons of instructions, says Jenkins.

Ms. JENKINS: That is crazy.

SANCHEZ: Evelyn Rich(ph), also a parent, nods in agreement.

Ms. EVELYN RICH: And I think that's why a lot of parents get discouraged, because it is so much information to be included.

SANCHEZ: One hundred and twenty seven questions in all about a family's net worth, adjusted gross income, exemptions, savings, untaxed benefits, employer information, even drug convictions, which could end up disqualifying you altogether. Guidance counselors say the process gives people fits.

Ms. WILHELMINA GAH(ph) (Founder, College Financial Aid Counseling Center, Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland): Well, it really does, but I understand why we have to have that FAFSA.

SANCHEZ: Wilhelmina Gah founded the college financial aid counseling center in 1997 as part of the Prince George's County Public Schools. She says FAFSA is the only way to determine how much families should be able to contribute towards their children's college education. If they qualify for aid, FAFSA decides what combination of grants and loans a student should receive. The U.S. Department of Education then sends that information to schools, which in turn put together a financial aid package for the student.

Dressed in a bright red jogging suit, with a cluster of keys dangling from her neck, Gah hovers over parents and students, some on computers typing up letters, checking out FAFSA tutorials online. Gah fields all kinds of questions like from the woman who approached her this morning. She was thinking about withholding certain details about her income.

Ms. GAH: And I just told her it's important that she sends her tax information, otherwise they won't even consider her.

SANCHEZ: Gah says people just don't like giving so much personal financial information.

Ms. GAH: And I think that this is the part that bothers them the most, because they have to be truthful and honest about what they are filing for taxes.

SANCHEZ: Then there are the kids who are eligible but never submit a FAFSA often, says Gah, because they get little or no help from their parents.

Ms. GAH: And I hear it every day that: I'm not living at home anymore. My parents are divorced. My father's claiming, but my mother does everything, but he's not going to give me his information. And so it does put the children in a dilemma.

SANCHEZ: It doesn't have to be this complicated, says Susan Dynarski, professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She co-authored a study that concluded that FAFSA isn't just ridiculously long, it's unnecessary.

Professor SUSAN DYNARSKI (Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): We could eliminate the FAFSA altogether. Families could check off on their tax form that they have a child going to college. Then the IRS could just give their income information to the Department of Education and use that to determine eligibility.

SANCHEZ: Which is precisely what Dynarski recommended in congressional testimony right after her study was published. Lawmakers are considering the idea.

In the meantime, parents and students at the counseling center have no choice. They have to submit their FAFSAs. As for Jennifer Jenkins, the stressed-out mom - she's already renewed her FAFSA online. Now if she and her oldest daughter could only figure out how they're going to pay back the money they borrowed for college.

Ms. JENKINS: Her college loans equal $157,000.

SANCHEZ: But that's another story.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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