Congress should simplify the federal financial aid form to make sure students don's miss out on college opportunities.

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Thousands of Washington high school graduates are missing out on the promise of a free college education because they failed to fill out the required federal financial-aid form.

The blame for that failure — which affected about 11,000 students in 2017 — is shared by the students, their parents, high school guidance counselors and the complicated gateway the federal government has set up for accessing any kind of college financial aid.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has a lot of good ideas for making sure students in Washington and elsewhere do not leave millions of college scholarship dollars on the table because students cannot, or will not, fill out the required federal document. The association even questions the need for a separate federal form, since most families already file some of the same information on their income tax form.

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Some of the best ideas are included in a bill before Congress, called the Faster Access to Federal Student Aid Act, co-sponsored by the dynamic duo of education policy bipartisan agreement, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R- Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. — and others. Senate Bill 3611 has already passed the Senate but is not making progress yet in the House.

The bill would integrate Department of Education and Internal Revenue Service data to simplify the process of students proving eligibility for financial aid. It would also streamline the student loan repayment process. Revising both the Internal Revenue Code and the Higher Education Act would be a heavy lift.

The Internal Revenue Code does not currently allow this kind of data sharing, and some worry this change in the law could put personal information at risk of exposure.  The current system must be improved while keeping personal data safe.

Students, and their parents, should not be required to fill out a somewhat confusing financial aid eligibility form in addition to their tax return. The House should move SB 3611 or the House companion bill HR 7386 forward.

In the meantime, one of the best ways to improve participation in financial aid programs is for schools to improve guidance counselor work. If guidance counselors need to do more hand-holding to ensure these forms get filled out, then they should do so, even if that requires asking parents to come into their office. This is another good reason Washington schools need more counselors to make sure this important work gets done.

When it was created in 1992, the FAFSA made applying for financial aid simpler for both students and the colleges processing their applications, since this information is analyzed centrally instead of students filling out a separate form for every school. Those universities still need a certain amount of information to figure out if they can provide additional financial aid. So any simplification of the FAFSA must keep this issue in mind.

That doesn’t mean federal financial aid applications can’t be streamlined and simplified; the work must be done right. College attendance and success are important to the future of Washington’s young people. Students should get the help they need — including simplifying the financial aid process — to reach for the jobs of the future.