New rules for FAFSA filing will allow use of older tax data, which means financial aid offers will arrive sooner.
New rules for FAFSA filing will allow use of older tax data, which means financial aid offers will arrive sooner. - 
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A huge chart outside of Terri Williams’ office at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy tracks where all 90 seniors at the Baltimore high school are in the college application process. “Have they gone on any college tours, how many applications have they done, have they completed their FAFSA?” says Williams, a college access specialist with the CollegeBound Foundation.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used by the federal government, states and colleges to figure out who gets aid, and how much. Most of Williams’ students don’t have a shot at affording college without help, so she sends out letters and text messages – even intercepts students on their way to the bathroom – to make sure they complete the form on time.

The FAFSA goes live each year on Jan.1 and is due March 1 in most states. “I don’t care where they are,” she says. “I’m going to stop you so we can get it taken care of.”

Taking care of it means answering up to 108 questions. Questions like: Have you had a drug conviction? How much do your parents make? Is either a “dislocated worker?”

For many students, just tracking down some of that information can be a challenge. “They feel like ‘This is too much, I can't do it, and I’m not going to get anything anyway,’” Williams says. In reality, most of her students would be eligible for the maximum Pell grant, which is $5,730 this year. Because more than 1 million high school seniors don't bother to fill out the FAFSA each year, they fail to claim millions of dollars in financial aid.

The government is trying to make things easier. The Obama Administration proposed eliminating 27 questions. A bipartisan bill in Congress would replace the FAFSA with a postcard asking just two questions about household size and income. For most families, those two questions tell the government everything it needs to know, says Carrie Warick of the National College Access Network. “Most of those additional questions are really targeted at families with much more complicated financial situations,” Warick says, like wealthier families with assets and investments.

 The FAFSA does have some defenders. The vast majority of students now fill it out online, says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Skip logic” technology lets them bypass questions that don’t apply. “The average student today can complete the entire FAFSA, start to finish, in 20 minutes,” Draeger says.

But that doesn’t count the time it may take to dig up and sort through tax files and bank records. Draeger is all for getting rid of questions that don’t have anything to do with a student’s financial need, like the one about drug convictions.

Still, Draeger says, colleges rank students according to their relative need when they distribute their own grants and scholarships, and they need a lot of details to do that fairly. “If we make the application too simple, that ultimately means that more colleges will introduce their own applications,” Draeger says. “The net result for students is nothing. Nothing’s changed.”

There is one change pretty much everyone agrees on: The current FAFSA asks for data from the most recent tax year, but if you’re applying for aid right now, that would be 2014. Most people haven’t filed their taxes yet. 

If families could use their returns from one year earlier, they could import their tax information directly from the IRS, says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. They could also apply for aid earlier. “If you can file the FAFSA more easily and earlier, you’re much more likely to benefit from all the available aid that can help you pay for college and get to graduation,” she says.

In many states, grant money is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis — until it’s gone. A recent report from Edvisors, a publisher of student aid information, says students who file their FAFSA in the first three months of the year get more than twice as much grant aid, on average, as those who wait longer.

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Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports