Millions of college students and their families are approaching a dreaded annual rite of passage: Completing the application for federal financial aid.
The form has been streamlined over the years, but it's still 10 pages of detailed and sometimes irrelevant questions with additional pages of instructions. Wading through it online, as almost all applicants do, isn't exactly one of the labors of Hercules. But it could be much easier.
The 108 questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, could be slashed to just two -- what is your family size and what was your household income two years ago -- according to Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), with no impact on the determination of aid, such as Pell grants and loans, an applicant is qualified to receive. The plan to shrink the form to the size of a postcard was developed by two college professors.
Going to only two questions may be a pipe dream. But whatever additional simplification can be done should be done, by officials of the U.S. Department of Education where possible, and Congress where necessary. It could save families millions of hours of effort and colleges millions of dollars in administrative costs. And it would lower the barrier to an education for people daunted by the current form.
There is a danger in going too far in trimming the application used to annually distribute about $150 billion to more than 15 million students. In the past, students often submitted separate applications for federal grants, parent loans and aid from their schools and states. The federal form eliminated some of that repetition. Make it too simple and some colleges and states could return to forms of their own. But done right, officials could lighten this bureaucratic burden for legions of strivers.