STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
High school seniors are doing something they could not have done this time last year, filling out their FAFSA forms - FAFSA, F-A-F-S-A. Don't worry. I didn't know what it was either. It's the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Anybody who wants government help paying for college has to complete it. Now, in past years the form was not available until January. But as Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team reports, letting students get a head start is part of an overhaul with one goal in mind.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Make sure more students finish filling it out - it's that simple - because, as President Obama recently told a crowd of high schoolers in Washington, D.C...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of the things that we're trying to do is to make it easier for you to access free money for college.
TURNER: That includes making the form available earlier, in October instead of January.
LINDSAY PAGE: Now students can be completing college applications and financial aid applications at the same time.
TURNER: Lindsay Page at the University of Pittsburgh has spent a lot of time studying the FAFSA. She says she's excited - that's her word - about two big new changes. There's the move to October and this. It used to be students needed their parents prior year tax data, but too many found themselves filling out the FAFSA before their parents had even done their taxes. Now, they can use prior-prior year tax data which means...
MARGARET FELDMAN: They'll be able to link their FAFSA to the IRS and automatically pull in tax data from 2015.
TURNER: That's Margaret Feldman, the director of college advising with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria in Virginia. She's based at T.C. Williams High School and has helped hundreds of students fill out the FAFSA. In the old days, she says, getting the right tax data was a big barrier for students. Now...
FELDMAN: The numbers will automatically populate into the FAFSA application.
TURNER: I assume those words, automatically populate - those are magical words to you.
FELDMAN: Those are very magical. It's a huge time saver.
TURNER: These changes are good, Feldman says, but she wants to be clear. The FAFSA's still hard for many students. Last year, I spent a day with her watching several teens struggle through the old FAFSA. Recently, I went back for the new one, and here's a bit of what I heard.
FELDMAN: This is this just instructions, so press next and skip that.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I can call him right now to get it.
FELDMAN: Yeah, that'd be great. Let's do that. So say no to that one. Have you ever been in foster care before?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: No.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: How about the year?
FELDMAN: Oh, no.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Oh, no.
FELDMAN: (Laughter) It timed out.
TURNER: Hold on. What happened?
FELDMAN: Periodically, that website crashes.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Hello? Papi, me puedes dar tu Social Security ahorita? OK.
He said he doesn't have his own Social Security right now.
FELDMAN: Do you have your wife's tax return at home?
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #1: We have to contact her. She gets every document.
FELDMAN: She has all your documents?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: No, for your email. I need to get access to your email to get the information.
TURNER: So you guys have to come back?
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #2: Yes - have to come back.
TURNER: How's it feel?
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT #2: Bad (laughter). I was hoping it could be finished today.
TURNER: That was just a taste of the FAFSA process for four students. Two of them brought parents. Only one student finished. When I told researcher Lindsay Page...
PAGE: This certainly doesn't surprise me. The process, in and of itself, is confusing.
TURNER: Students still need lots of information, Page says, that they may not have easy access to - parents' birthdays, dates of divorce, Social Security numbers. And some still needed their tax info. Both Page and Feldman think the FAFSA could be easier, but it's hard to imagine that happening anytime soon. For now, Page says, one of the best things a school can do is to make sure students have grown-ups, like Margaret Feldmann, to guide them through it.
FELDMAN: OK. There we go.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: There we go.
FELDMAN: All the numbers we need. So go ahead and hit - check this box...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: All right.
FELDMAN: ...And hit transfer now.
TURNER: Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.