New financial aid process intends to simplify, but will it?

Low-income college students and their parents may be looking at a new federal financial aid application modeled after E-Z tax forms, but some observers wonder if the new process will be any simpler.

President Bush recently signed a new Higher Education reauthorization bill that calls for an EZ FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The existing form is seven pages long, and primarily covers questions of income. Most agree that the current form is intimidating. As Addison Herron-Wheeler, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, put it in the Free Lance-Star: "Because my father, whom I consider to be pretty smart, struggled to understand these forms and documents, I wondered how someone whose parents might really be uneducated and unaware of any of the realities of college or financial life would handle these documents."

Critics now say the new approach, which would involve a three-page, EZ form, is equally confusing because it involves determining whether someone is even eligible to use it.

At least that's the view of the New America Foundation, a think tank and media watchdog group. The foundation said on its Web site that eligibility is for students "whose families earn less than $50,000 a year and either are not required to file the long version of the 1040 federal income tax return or receive certain means-tested benefits such as welfare payments or food stamps." That means the applicant would have to know whether the family fills out a 10450A or the 1040EZ, "and the only way to do that is to answer certain difficult and error-prone questions that make the regular FAFSA form so challenging," the foundation said.

Christina Satkowski, a research associate with the New America Foundation, told the University Daily Kansan: "My concern is that, while well-intentioned, it's going to create more, rather than less, complexity for low-income students."

The legislation calls for experimenting with new ways to further simplify the federal financial aid application process. According to a statement by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the legislation encourages the U.S. Department of Education to work with the IRS to share tax data that can be used to pre-populate students' financial aid application forms.

At any rate, the new forms may be several years in coming. The legislation calls for "appropriate field testing" before the new applications are issued. The Department of Education must also go through a public comment process before implementing the new regulations.

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