Financial Aid Form Gets a Little Easier

The dreaded federal financial aid form will be easier for some families to fill out next year.

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Applying for financial aid is about to get a little less annoying. The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that it would streamline the 109-question, six-page Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

For many years, the FAFSA has been the subject of insults and curses from millions of parents and a bipartisan army of politicians. But it got longer and more complicated over the years as Congress and state officials added questions to qualify students for specific scholarships and as financial aid officials tried to prevent parents from hiding income in order to qualify for aid.

Research shows that the form has become so complex and frustrating that as many as 1 million students are giving up in disgust, thus missing out on financial aid that would help them pay for college. In fact, many of the questions seem silly: After requiring students to enter their date of birth, for example, the 2009 form also asks students whether or not they were born before Jan. 1, 1986. Students also have to answer several repetitive questions about their marital status and the amount of school they've completed.

Repetitive questions will be eliminated from the online version of the form, says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Starting in January, the Education Department will make it easy for students and parents who use the online version to simply have their IRS tax forms automatically fill in many of the FAFSA questions about adjusted gross income, earnings, and the like, he promises.

Eventually, Duncan hopes to make the form even shorter. He plans to ask Congress for approval to cut out another 26 questions about savings, investments, and assets.

The simplification announcement was greeted with cheers by college financial aid officers, politicians, researchers, and others.

"This is a great first step," says Marcia Weston, director of the YMCA's College Goal Sunday program, which drafts volunteers across the country to help families fill out their FAFSAs on a few Sundays each winter.

But she noted that many disadvantaged students do not have computer access and thus fill out the paper FAFSA, which will not be simplified. Those who need aid the most might still have to suffer through the most annoying form.

In addition, while the federal government has increased the size and number of college grants it will be giving out, many states and foundations are cutting back on aid. So the most frustrating part of applying for aid—not getting any—won't be resolved anytime soon. "There is more demand than there are resources," Weston says.