It is almost Christmas, sure, but more important for many students it is the time of year when those seeking early acceptance to their first choice college get the good or the bad news. So it is as good a time as any for me to confess a great weakness in my frequent coverage of the college admissions game:
I almost never write about how hard it is to find the money to pay for these increasingly expensive schools.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is my excuse: I am not smart enough, or patient enough, to plow through all the rules and subparagraphs and worksheets and other necessary parts of the financial aid and loan-seeking process. I have the same problem with mortgage forms, credit card applications and tax returns. I have only avoided bankruptcy, or jail, by marrying a very clever woman who enjoys dealing with such financial arcana and, given my feeble arithmetic skills, doesn't want me anywhere near the paperwork.
Nonetheless, I have stumbled upon a part of the financial aid process that seems rudimentary enough for me to understand, and important enough to take a closer look. I have just read an ill-tempered exchange of letters between two very knowledgeable men who, in the midst of their disagreement over how to help low-income students apply to college, illuminate this fact: the problem is not just providing enough financial assistance for college, but making sure the red tape to apply for the money doesn't lead the poorest applicants to quit before they get started.
My two informants are Bruce J. Poch, vice president and dean of admission at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and Steven Brooks, executive director of the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority in Research Triangle Park, N.C. During an Oct. 31 meeting of the College Board Forum in Chicago, Poch said some things that Brooks didn't like. Brooks complained to Poch in a Nov. 2 letter. Poch wrote back in the same tone Nov. 12. Brooks replied on Dec. 7, and both agreed to let me quote from the letters and other comments they sent me.
Their disagreement dramatizes a very old but still unsolved issue. Americans have yet to figure out a way to assist people financially without asking them many personal questions, and the people who need the money the most are often the least experienced at dealing with these questions, and the most likely to become frustrated and give up.
The quarrel between Poch and Brooks began when the College Board meeting opened for new business. Poch said he thought the board should ask TV networks and print media to help launch public service advertising that would tell low-income parents and students that college is not nearly as expensive as they think it is. I recall a 1998 survey in which Americans on average thought in-state tuition at a four-year state university cost $9,694, when the actual price was $2,848. Poch said he wanted to do more to dispel such myths, which keep kids from even thinking about higher education.
Poch told me in an e-mail "I likely rubbed salt in the wound by stating that while traveling in the country, I read the many obituaries of those young soldiers killed in Iraq in local papers and there was an enormous frequency of comment that they had enlisted to get educational opportunity and GI Bill support. I felt we had built our military policy on the backs of kids who thought the military was the only way they could afford college."
At the meeting, he said he had been talking to high school counselors who felt that the College Board's College Scholarship Service (CSS) was making its PROFILE system, which helps students apply for financial aid, too complicated and too expensive. CSS officials had recently made the PROFILE forms available only online. Poch said he thought this would stymie applicants who did not have computers at home. He also said the rules for waiving the PROFILE fees for low-income students were too cumbersome, and CSS should extend the waivers, which save applicants $18 per college, to more than just the maximum three filings under the new CSS rules.
Poch said he thought the computer requirement for filing contradicted the College Board's promise of equity and access for all students. He said he thought colleges and universities should consider paying all PROFILE fees themselves, rather than making the students pay.
Brooks, who is on the CSS council, said in his letter he thought Poch was spreading untrue rumors. He said CSS had worked hard to improve the system, making it both more accessible to low-income students and less likely to be misused by affluent students. Only 5 percent of PROFILE users had filed paper forms in the last year, he said, and the service had interviewed each one to make certain the new computerized system would work for them. He said Poch was wrong to suggest that the paper applicants were mostly kids who couldn't afford a computer. Some said they filed paper "because their financial advisors suggested that approach," Brooks said.
Brooks said students without computers could file from machines at school or the local library, and the waiver system had been improved so that they could easily declare themselves low-income and pay no fees. The previous system, he said, had allowed many families who could afford the fees to avoid them. He said that although he shared Poch's preference for more free filings, the new limit of three was better than the previous limit of two. The system was not as complicated as Poch described, he said.
In his second letter, Brooks ended on a friendlier note: "I fully agree with you that we should actively search for ways to improve the PROFILE process and to remove any inadvertent barriers to access."
That makes sense to me, but I have consulted some very experienced high school counselors and they say that Brooks and Poch, although well-intentioned, have not gone far enough. PROFILE, after all, is just one of two major financial aid forms, and not as important as the more widely used Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. In general, most state universities use just FAFSA, but many private colleges also require PROFILE forms, which provide more of the details they need in dispensing private scholarship money, including home equity that favors many middle-class families but is ignored by FAFSA.
These counselors say form-adverse people like me are terrified by both the PROFILE and FAFSA. Amy Hackett Ferguson, career center specialist at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, said PROFILE, online or not, "is a confusing, long, arduous form." FAFSA, she said, might appear to be simpler, but to many low-income students and their families "it is overwhelming."
Which is one reason why private companies offer to help families fill out the free FAFSA form, for a fee, of course. Susan Yowell, a counselor at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria who specializes in helping students find financial aid, said making PROFILE free, as Poch and Brooks want to do, will be of only limited assistance. She says colleges and universities "might go a step further and hire financial aid counselors to go to the high schools to sit down and help students complete the FAFSA or CSS profile. We all know that the typical public high school guidance counselor has a caseload of 300 or more students and has little time, or tools, to guide students through the financial aid process."
Some counselors have an even more radical suggestion, one that might not please either Poch or Brooks, who both like the information provided by the PROFILE form. Why don't colleges just drop the PROFILE and make do with the FAFSA, saving a lot of trouble? There must be some way to add a question or two to the government form that would keep people like me from disguising the nest egg we have in our homes.
It's worth considering. And even if both forms survive, in an era when presidents promise to simplify the income tax filing process, couldn't we also reduce the length and complexity of the financial aid process to a level where even I could begin to understand it?