College Now is among the organizations applauding the simplication of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Here, students are shown receiving advice at a pre-pandemic event. (Kevin Kopanski/College Now Greater Cleveland)

Tucked into the latest lengthy congressional relief package is an act that calls for simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly referred to as the FAFSA form.

Education advocates who have long pushed for changes say it will help students, especially those who are in need and those from underrepresented communities, potentially earn more in financial aid to attend and eventually complete college.

An estimated $2.5 billion to $3 billion in student aid nationally and millions in Ohio go unclaimed annually. In 2019, College Now Greater Cleveland‘s Michele Scott Taylor testified on Capitol Hill about both “the real and perceived complexity of the FAFSA form.”

Now, Taylor, College Now’s chief program officer, said the provisions will bring along more adjustments than she anticipated.

“We think with this new legislation and its simplification, we will probably be able to mitigate a lot of what people perceive as it being too hard to complete,” she said.

One of the most common complaints is the FAFSA’s length. The new law makes a considerable cut from previous incarnations, dropping the form from 108 questions to 36. It will cut many questions that weren’t applicable for the majority of filers.

Additional questions will be removed, like ones that asked about a selective service registration or if students have a drug conviction — items that groups such as the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) say can create barriers.

Other changes include retooling the calculation used to determine who is eligible for a Pell Grant. However, some say there are even more ways to potentially streamline the process for students and families.

Cuyahoga Community College‘s Angela Johnson, who also has been a part of national advocacy efforts, points out that completing a new FAFSA each year may be redundant since incomes typically don’t shift substantially while a student is enrolled.

“Assuming they don’t stop out, you could really use their income multiple years,” said Johnson, Tri-C’s vice president of access and completion. “It certainly allows them to plan financially how they’ll pay for college, with a focus on completion and completing college, not really the mechanics of the FAFSA every year.”

But the changed form won’t go into effect until next fall, and in the meantime, completion rates for the high school class of 2021 are dropping amid the economic crunch of the coronavirus pandemic. These figures are one indicator higher education leaders use to predict future enrollment.

The latest estimates from NCAN show that Ohio is mirroring a national trend for the high school class of 2021. Rates in the state at the end of 2020 were down roughly 12% compared with the like period in late 2019.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.