The top federal official overseeing higher education wants to see the financial form for college aid greatly simplified.

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One of the biggest obstacles for parents with college-going children is filling out the FAFSA, the federal government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The form asks more than a hundred detailed questions about a family’s income in order to measure whether a student should be eligible for aid. But it’s so complicated that it’s seen by many educators as a barrier for low-income and first-generation students who want to go to college.

U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, in Seattle last week to promote the Obama administration’s proposal to make community college tuition-free, described the FAFSA as “a running joke, and I enjoy participating.” Mitchell is the top federal official overseeing higher education for the U.S. Department of Education.

Donna Grethen / Op Art (Donna Grethen)
Donna Grethen / Op Art (Donna Grethen)

Mitchell said that once a parent has all the paperwork in order, it takes, on average, about 20 minutes to complete the form. Still, that’s 19 minutes too long, he said.

Mitchell said the Department of Education will make some changes to the form this year, but that “there are certainly limitations to what we can do without Congress’s help.”

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U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who heads the Senate committee that is working on reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act, has proposed that the FAFSA be completely eliminated, and replaced with a simple form that would ask families to provide only their family size and household income. It’s unclear what chance such a bill has of passing.

For now, other efforts are in the works to help students and their families fill out the FAFSA, Mitchell said, including First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Reach Higher” initiative, which aims to help more students understand financial aid eligibility and show creative approaches to encouraging more students to complete their FAFSA forms.

Washington state offers a program, College Goal Washington, that helps students fill out the FAFSA. The events take place around the state in January and February.