Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Word has it that my state is considering requiring students to file FAFSA (Federal financial aid) forms as a condition of admission to a cc.

The idea, as near as I can figure, is not to leave any Federal money on the table.

That said, I have one reaction:


This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

First, it's a paperwork nightmare. If you're willing to plunk down cash on the barrel to take a class (or two, or four) with us, what's the problem? The FAFSA takes hours to complete, and requires a significant level of financial disclosure. If you don't want aid anyway, why jump through the hoop?

Second, experience tells me that when confronted with irrelevant forms, students lie. They put in bogus information just to get over it, and to preserve their own pride in the face of what would otherwise be demeaning. In some contexts, that might not matter much. But here, the federal regs require us to follow up on any discrepancies on the forms. That means that if an annoyed student gives "69 Hershey Highway" as an address, we actually have to devote staff time (read: money) to investigate it.

Now, if a student doesn't want aid and gives bad information, it's a pretty safe bet that she won't get any. But we'll still have to process the forms and investigate the claims. That means hiring more staff -- that's "administrative overhead" for those keeping score at home -- to follow up on claims that won't get funded anyway. In the name of not leaving money on the table, we'll have to hire more back-office workers and pay them. Not good.

And it's not like the local financial aid staff is sitting on its hands, wishing for something to do. Combine 'enrollment boom' with 'massive recession,' and you get a truly impressive backlog of applications as it is. Our FA office is already straining. Adding thousands of frivolous applications to an already-overwhelming load wouldn't help.

The Obama administration has committed to simplifying the form, and I honestly hope they do. But even a simplified form would require record-keeping, investigation of discrepancies, and close auditing. Scaling up these costs to include people who don't want aid anyway is a deadweight cost.

If access to higher education is the desired goal, give us the operating budgets to run more classes and keep tuition down. If cost-shifting to the Feds is the goal, let us raise tuition substantially to capture the entirety of the new Pell grant caps. Either way would be both simpler and more effective, and would result in a more robust set of options for prospective students. Those students who need it could apply for aid; those who don't need it could just pay their tuition and go to class. But increasing our costs for back-office staff, while cutting our operating budgets, will not improve access. All it will do is irritate students and create bigger budgetary holes.

No, thanks.