If you thought applying to college was complicated, try applying for financial aid.
Even Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, says he's floored by how complex and confusing the process of applying for financial assistance is today. "At a time when our country needs more college graduates, the financial aid application process has become an unnecessary roadblock on the path to a higher education degree, " he wrote on his blog.
But there is an obvious step that students can take to qualify for up to $30,000 in aid — and it doesn't take all day.
Every year, the U.S. Department of Education gives over $120 billion in federal grants, federal loans and work-study funds to more than 13 million college students, making it the largest provider of student financial aid in the country. In order to receive their share of these funds, students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Many students mistakenly believe that they do not qualify for federal aid. According to NerdWallet, the high school class of 2017 missed out on $2.3 billion worth of free college aid — money towards tuition that doesn't need to be repaid — simply by not filling out the form.
Nearly every student is eligible for some form of financial assistance, be it federal grants that do not need to be repaid, federal loans that have low interest rates and strong consumer protections or work-study assistance that can help students earn cash and build their resumes at the same time.
"Aid is available for anyone with a household income below $250,000 a year," Charlie Javice, founder & CEO of FAFSA platform Frank tells CNBC Make It. Javice points out that being "too rich" to file the FAFSA applies to less than five percent of the U.S. population.
"To students who don't think that [the] FAFSA applies to them — wake up and smell the coffee," says Javice. "It takes four minutes. You are probably going to get $10,000 to $30,000 worth of aid in your first year."
In the past, students and educators have bemoaned how time-consuming the process of completing the FAFSA can be.
Just as citizens use services like TurboTax to file their taxes, students can also use services like FRANK to help fill out their FAFSA if they choose. According to Javice, the FAFSA-filing process with FRANK takes just four minutes.
And the Department of Education has taken steps to make the form simpler and more intuitive, including a website redesign and the addition of automatic error notifications if a field has been incorrectly filled. The 2019 - 2020 FAFSA can even be completed on your phone.
To test out these improvements, I filled out the revamped FAFSA form myself. To my surprise, it took about five and a half minutes.
In order to complete the FAFSA, students will need their tax returns, information about how much money is in their bank accounts and the names of the schools they are interested in attending. The IRS data retrieval tool makes it easy for students to automatically transfer their tax return information, so I didn't need to go searching for my returns. The information needed about my bank account was limited, so I didn't need to go searching through bank statements.
"I think [the Department of Education] has definitely made some strides," Sallie Mae spokesperson Rick Castellano tells CNBC Make It of the improved FAFSA. "Specifically, the IRS data retrieval tool is a game-changer and the ability to use your prior year tax return is huge."
Castellano says that though it can take closer to 30 minutes for some students to complete the FAFSA, "it's well worth it given what you're getting in line for."
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