One Saturday morning last month, more than 100 students packed into two computer labs at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md. Many were enrolled at the college and were filling out the FAFSA for the next year; others were high school seniors or prospective adult students. Six Prince George's Community College financial aid officers and an Education Department official were on hand to answer questions.
The free event was organized by College Goal Sunday, a state-based campaign supported primarily by nonprofit and foundation funds. "Most families just want the comfort and security of having someone near them in completing the form, and just knowing that they're doing it right," says Tiffany Reese, national coordinator for the program.
Getting more students to go to college has been a priority for Obama because more and more middle-class jobs require a college degree. Low- to moderate-income students who get professional help filling out a FAFSA are about 30 percent more likely to enroll in college, a 2009 study led by Stanford University's Eric Bettinger found. Using that finding, University of Michigan and Northwestern researchers calculated in 2011 that increasing FAFSA completion would be one of the cheapest ways to increase college enrollment.
The Education Department has made it easier for students and families to fill out the FAFSA on their own by removing repetitive questions and streamlining the online application using methods common to tax-preparation software. The online form — which almost all students now use — skips questions that don't apply to that student, alerts them to glaring errors, and will automatically input tax information from the Internal Revenue Service. It takes most students about a half-hour to complete.
The president and first lady have both held events promoting the new form, and the Education Department wants to partner with states to let high schools know when seniors haven't filled it out. High school counselors are perhaps best positioned to teach students about the FAFSA. But nationally, there are on average about 471 public-school students per guidance counselor, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. And not many counselors have financial aid expertise.
Crystal Trice, 22, had no idea she could access financial aid until she met with Shelby Potts, a pre-college counselor at her Maryland high school. Trice had started dreaming about college in middle school and was a B-plus student, but going to college seemed impossible. "I thought I was basically going to have to pay for everything myself," Trice says — a tall order for a homeless teenager. "There was no way I was going to pay for school off of my own little income, working at a minimum-wage job."
The FAFSA linked Trice to the federal, state, and institutional scholarship money she needed to enroll at Stevenson University outside Baltimore, where full-time tuition and fees run to $27,082 in 2013-14. Trice is currently working three jobs (two on campus, one at a Burger King) and studying for a degree in psychology and management. She's also working with financial aid officers at the school to figure out her FAFSA for next year.