A Simpler Aid Application for Low-Income College Students

Policymakers, postsecondary education leaders, and researchers agree: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be a barrier to achieving our nation’s college access goals. There is strong concern that FAFSA negatively affects enrollment and financial aid, prompting bipartisan support for simplifying the form by removing “unnecessary” questions.

For low-income students, it’s critical to expand current political thinking to include raising the threshold for the automatic zero Expected Family Contribution (EFC). “Autozero EFC” allows low-income students to skip income and asset questions, thereby providing minimal information while still automatically qualifying for the maximum Pell Grant. Students are eligible for autozero EFC if they have low incomes (below $25,000) and 1) receive public benefits; 2) have status as a dislocated worker; or 3) are allowed to file a simplified tax form or are not required to file a tax return at all.

As a cost-savings measure in 2012, Congress lowered the threshold for autozero EFC from an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $32,000 to $23,000 (which has since risen with inflation to $25,000). By lowering the threshold, fewer students are eligible for the autozero EFC. Had the rollback not taken place and the $32,000 threshold continued to rise with inflation per the statute, the threshold would be nearly $35,000 today.

This brief—written by Lauren Walizer—provides two reasons for policymakers to raise the limit to $35,000:

  • Financial need goes further up the income stream than it once did. As such, we should define “low-students” as those with incomes up to $35,000.
  • Students who earn between $25,000 and $35,000 have significant financial need, are disproportionately students of color, and are often independent from their parents financially.