OPINION | FAFSA’s family expectations are flawed

Today, the FAFSA form opens, signaling yet another season of stress for those who need federal aid to pursue their education. In the midst of scrambling to gather your parents’ tax information from two years ago, you might stop and ask — wait, why am I doing this again?

Though it is a crucial source of aid for many, FAFSA is a flawed system. Its assumptions about students’ family contributions and financial stability, often inaccurate, can mean the difference between academic success and dropping out of the semester because of an impossible payment plan.

Each year, the FAFSA determines financial need by subtracting a student’s expected family contribution, or EFC, from their cost of attendance. The EFC doesn’t directly represent either cost or aid amounts, but when plugged into this equation, it decides how much need-based aid a student is eligible for.

For example, UCCS’ average annual in-state tuition is estimated at $10,480. Students with the overall average EFC of $10,000 would then only be eligible for the remaining $480 in need-based aid, usually in the form of a subsidized loan.

But what if the student’s family doesn’t have a spare $10,000 lying around to contribute that year? Non-need-based aid such as unsubsidized loans might help lower that number — but how can it be “non-need-based” if a student would be unable to pay for tuition without it? Even with other loans and scholarships, FAFSA’s unrealistic expectations often leave families to cover the bulk of the cost regardless of whether they can afford it.

Its judgment of what families can afford may also be misguided, considering that the EFC is calculated primarily based on income from two years prior. While this method avoids estimating income based on an in-progress tax cycle, it also imagines that families’ financials will remain the same across several years.

Besides taking for granted that a student’s family can pay up to the expected amount, FAFSA makes an even greater assumption: that the family is willing to pay.

FAFSA imposes a rigid dependency status on traditional college-age applicants. Some special circumstances can grant exemption, but generally applicants younger than 24 are automatically considered dependents of their parents even if they don’t live with their parents and aren’t claimed on their parents’ taxes.

“Dependents” who won’t see any financial support from their families have no option to file independently on the FAFSA. Their eligibility for need-based aid will still be judged based on their families’ income, ignoring the fact that there may be a huge disparity between a student’s individual income and their parents’.

Especially for students estranged from their families, requiring parental information on the FAFSA is an extra slap in the face. Even parents who have the means may refuse to support their children through college, whether because of cultural ideas about work ethic or a disagreement about academic goals.

The burden then falls on these students to negotiate with their universities’ financial aid offices on their own, after the FAFSA has already marked them with an inaccurate assessment of need.

FAFSA does a good job of designating financial aid for students with low EFCs, but it fails to account for many cases where the projected EFC doesn’t match reality.

Despite the annual average EFC being $10,000, “slightly more than half of students have an EFC of $2,500 or less,” while “slightly more than 10% have an EFC greater than $25,000,” according to savingforcollege.com. With so much of the student population demonstrating significant financial need, FAFSA shouldn’t assume that $10,000 is a reasonable middle ground for most families to pay out of pocket.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students are more likely to attend college within three years of high school graduation if they believe their families can afford it. Cost remains a real barrier in higher education, and more students could access financial aid based on their needs if the FAFSA did not define need so strictly.

By 2024, the EFC will be renamed the student aid index, or SAI, but FAFSA will continue to use it to determine students’ financial need with only a few small changes. In addition to the eligibility index tool, however, the FAFSA should also leave space to consider students’ individual circumstances that may make family contribution less feasible.

Photo caption: Photo courtesy of ontocollege.com.