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One hidden barrier to college: Paperwork.

Feb 18, 2015

It’s a frigid Thursday morning in Jonesville, a small town southwest of Jackson. Bob Drake is trying his best not to make a mistake.

"It has to be exact from what you put on your taxes," Drake explains. 

Drake is a counselor at Jonesville High School. He’s helping a parent, Joy Sutton, fill out her son’s FAFSA.

"Yeah, it’s kind of finicky," Drake continues.

The FAFSA, if you’ve never had the pleasure of encountering it, is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The deadline for having it turned in for Michigan students is coming up soon -- March 1.

Joy Sutton has filled out the FAFSA before, with her older son. Or rather, she got help filling it out before.

"Did you ever think about trying to tackle it on your own, that first time around?" I ask her.

"Never," she says. "No."  

In 2006, the federal Department of Education issued a nearly 60-page report on the future of higher education. One of its main findings: the current system for getting financial aid is "confusing, complex, inefficient, duplicative, and frequently does not direct aid to students who truly need it."

A smart choice, for those who are lucky enough to get help on the FAFSA. In 2006, the federal Department of Education issued a nearly 60-page report on the future of higher education. One of its main findings: the current system for getting financial aid is "confusing, complex, inefficient, duplicative, and frequently does not direct aid to students who truly need it."

The report noted that the FAFSA, the main way to apply for federal financial aid, is more complicated for many families than filing their taxes.

Kids who have a guidance counselor like Bob Drake are lucky enough to have support. Jonesville isn’t a huge school. Drake can help any graduating senior with their FAFSA. And he’s gotten pretty quick at it.

"But yeah," Drake says. "For families, it seems very difficult ... you hear parents spending hours on it."

"The biggest difference is the families who are first-generation college students really don't even know where to start in terms of applying for financial aid," says Jonesville High School counselor Bob Drake.

Drake says it’s especially daunting for the kids who most need the financial aid --kids who might be among the first generation in their families to even go to college.

"The biggest difference is the families who are first-generation college students really don’t even know where to start in terms of applying for financial aid," he says. "Don’t know where to start, don’t know what they need, basically have no clue."

Even the timing of the FAFSA deadline is confusing. Students don’t complete it until after they apply for colleges. So, they’re trying to get into college before they even know if they can pay for it. Then, the deadline for the FAFSA in Michigan is March 1, which is earlier than many families normally finish their taxes -- which they need to do before the FAFSA. And you don’t hear back until the spring, just months before you’d need to move into your college dorm.

Various reports estimate that somewhere in the range of 1 to 2 million students who would be eligible for federal financial aid don’t even file their FAFSA.

That’s a problem that many people are trying to solve, including the agency that administers the FAFSA.

But one clear way to make it easier is if you can find help.

After less than an hour, Bob Drake announces, "Okay, so  we’re at the end."

"Oh, wow," Sutton says with a smile. "This is why it’s so nice to have Bob Drake’s help."

For tips and more expert advice on how to fill out the FAFSA check out our recent Infowire.

Editor's Note: The March 1 deadline is a Michigan deadline for students who may qualify for state aid, including the Michigan Competitive Scholarship and/or the Michigan Tuition Grant. The federal deadline is June 30, and students who miss the March 1 deadline can still submit a FASFA for all other non-state aid. Amendments to the FASFA (including tax information) can be made until September 17, although the amendments may change your eligibility for aid.