When the Obama administration announced last year that it would overhaul the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, prospective college students (and their parents) cheered.
"Today, we're lending a hand to millions of high school students who want to go to college and who've worked hard," said Arne Duncan, who was at that time U.S. secretary of education. "We're announcing an easier, earlier FAFSA."
And it is both.
Earlier because it's now available to students in October instead of January.
Easier because most students can now use their parents' prior-prior year tax data, which means they can use the IRS' data-retrieval tool to automatically answer some of the form's toughest tax questions.
So why do many students still have trouble finishing the FAFSA?
Ask Margaret Feldman. She's the director of college advising with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria in Virginia, and she's based at T.C. Williams High School. There she helps students step-by-step through the FAFSA process.
Last year, I spent a day with Feldman, watching several teens struggle through the old FAFSA. Recently, I went back to hear how they're handling the new one.
I watched four students attempt to complete the form. Two brought a parent along. Just one student finished. This is just some of what I heard:
"Periodically, the FSA ID website crashes ... and makes you exit the browser and start again," says Feldman, moments after such a crash forces senior Dontae Hibbert and her father, Lucian Hibbert, to restart.
The FSA ID is a relatively new requirement for FAFSA applicants. It's meant to verify the identities of students and parents and to prevent fraud, but it's also labor-intensive for many teens.
Oh no, typo
"If you have to ever change the name, the date of birth or the Social Security number, we resubmit and then we have to wait one to three days to log back in to the FSA ID account," Feldman says, consoling the Hibberts after Dontae mistyped Lucian's birthdate. The typo scuttles their FAFSA effort for the day.
"One of the main hurdles with completing the FAFSA is just the number of steps that students have to go through and the different moving pieces that are required from parents and students. So, getting them in the same place with all of the information that they need to actually fill out the FAFSA in one sitting is pretty tricky," Feldman says after the Hibberts fail to finish.
"You've never been to court and separated from your dad?" Feldman asks one student as she helps her through the FAFSA's many questions.
"Wait, I was separated, but by my mom, though. They went to court and fought for my custody. So do I put 'Yes'?" the student asks, genuinely confused.
For some students who live in more traditional families, this sort of question is a no-brainer. But for many teens it can be a brick wall.
"She's not answering," senior Devin Butler says, laughing, as he tries calling his mother. He needs her to check her email and verify her identity.
Feldman says it's not uncommon for students to have to call their parents, seeking answers for tough questions.
The family, Part 2
"Household is you and Dad," Feldman says, leaning over a student's shoulder.
"Um, but we do live with my uncle and aunt," the student says.
"Household always includes you and the parent that you live with and then it includes your parents' other children, if your dad provides 50 percent or more of their financial support. ... For your uncle, does he support himself?"
"Yeah, he supports himself."
"Then we wouldn't count him."
"So, I would put three? Since [My dad] doesn't have custody of my little brother, but he does pay for most of his stuff?"
Phone home, Part 2
"Me puedes dar tu Social Security, ahorita?" one student says to her father after having to call him. He doesn't remember his Social Security number, and the student cannot finish the FAFSA without it.
Taxes still matter
"Do you have your wife's tax return?" Feldman asks Ahmed Conteh, a father who came to Feldman's office to help his son, Al Nagib.
"We have to contact her. She's got everything," Conteh says.
Because Conteh and his wife filed their taxes separately, they're not able to use the IRS' data-retrieval tool. So, even though Ahmed has his tax records in-hand, Al has to put the FAFSA on hold until they can get his mother's tax data, too.
When the IRS helps, it helps
"Hey, there we go!" Devin Butler cheers as he successfully uses the IRS' data tool to automatically answer the FAFSA's toughest tax questions.
"All the numbers we need," Feldman says, relieved. Devin would finish a few minutes later.
Even parents need help
"How's it feel?" I ask Lucian Hibbert after Feldman tells him that he and his daughter will have to wait at least a day or two to finish the FAFSA.
"Bad," he says, laughing. "I was hoping it could be finished today."
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.