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How Some Families Are Breaking the Rules to Apply for Financial Aid

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Here’s the good news: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, website is now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week after a yearslong effort to simplify the process of seeking financial assistance. This month, I watched two high school seniors and their college counselor start the forms from scratch and submit them in just over an hour.

And here’s the strange news: The teenagers were able to complete the application quickly because they had logged in both as themselves, each using their own username and password, and then again using their parents’ credentials (with their parents’ permission) in order to complete one important aspect of the process.

The login handover was the counselor’s idea, and the parents — including a nonnative English speaker and someone who works two jobs and is time-starved and technology-addled — were all for it, too.

But in doing so, the teenagers made a false statement that broke the law.

No one is going to jail here. But the theoretical possibility underscores the unintended consequences of attempts to make things simpler. In this case, safeguards are necessary to protect private financial information. But any new login requirements might also trigger an impulse for many families with complicated lives to bypass them.

The scene I witnessed — parents’ email accounts open on the counselor’s laptop for access to two-factor authentication codes, printouts of tax returns in a school conference room, kids keeping track of their parents’ various passwords — was not particularly surprising. After all, it is a prime example of the dysfunction involved in the way we pay for higher education in the United States.

Countless people have done their best over many decades to create and tweak policies and systems to help low-income, first-generation students like the pair I met get to and through college. The efforts to simplify the FAFSA — the very ones that prompt parental logins — were part of a continuing effort to make things easier.

So how did these good intentions result in what I observed in that school conference room this month?

The changes to the application are the product of federal legislation passed in 2020. Making things easier, it turns out, is complex enough that it took three years to put them into effect.

Even with that multiyear timeline, the rollout for the new form — and the changes to the formula for how the federal government parcels out its various types of financial aid — was not smooth. The Education Department’s “soft launch” on Dec. 30 kept the website open for only brief periods. The site was glitchy, and parts of it confused people.

When I wrote a column on Jan. 1 about my own failure to complete the form, I received a note from a school counselor. He wanted to read more about the experience for everyday students. Fair point. So I asked him to let me peek over his students’ shoulders as they made their first attempts to complete the new form.

Families used to make lots of errors on the FAFSA, especially when reporting their income. A kind of audit would often result, leading to confusion, frustration and delays. The new application makes it easier for families to automatically port over the correct tax information from the Internal Revenue Service.

For everything to work, however, at least one parent of a dependent student needs a separate account with its own username and password. No big deal, right? The students log in, do their thing, and then the parents get pinged, log in and do their thing.

But to counselors who work with low-income families that have not had anyone go to college before, the login process for the grown-ups can be a very big deal. Many parents can’t go to school meetings because they work, often in two or more jobs at all hours, or they may not have great internet access. Everyone has questions — lots of them. One of the students at the school I visited kept calling her mother when she couldn’t answer queries on the form or from her counselor.

In the real world, a process that looks fairly simple in a usability testing lab in Washington can be problematic for many families. So counselors — and parents and students — cut corners by just lining up all the usernames and passwords for everyone to just get the dang FAFSA done.

Once they do, eligible kids can get Pell Grants that can make school more affordable. Parents swell with pride as their children matriculate. And counselors with enormous caseloads do the Lord’s work, 60 hours a week, year after year, for too-low pay.

Given the challenges and the potential life-changing gains, is the sharing of usernames and passwords with permission a serious problem? After all, families frequently swap passwords for any number of reasons — fixing a banking problem for an aging parent or a sick sibling, or slipping into a spouse’s frequent flier account to book a trip for two.

But when you’re done with the FAFSA and ready to submit, the Education Department hits you with the following statement:

“If you sign this application or any document related to the federal student aid programs electronically using a username and password, and/or any other credential, you certify that you are the person identified by the username and password, and/or any other credential and have not disclosed that username and password, and/or any other credential to anyone else.”

Then, in the next sentence, there’s more, and it’s scary: “If you purposefully give false or misleading information, including applying as an independent student without meeting the unusual circumstances required to qualify for such a status, you may be subject to criminal penalties under 20 U.S.C. 1097, which may include a fine up to $20,000, imprisonment or both.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that the “misleading information” passage does indeed include using a parent’s credentials when completing the form.

There is no evidence that the Department of Justice has ever gone after a teenager who just wanted to borrow money from the government or get a four-figure grant. And it’s hard to imagine it doing so in a presidential election year.

Still, once it became clear that the students were doing something wrong, I decided to keep their names, and the counselor’s, out of this column. The kids were just following their counselor’s instructions, after all. And that counselor is the very model of the type of grown-up that Mr. Rogers probably had in mind when he used to tell people to look for the helpers.

When I ran all of this by advocates for teenagers who were seeking better access to college, the reactions were surprising. Yes, they said, plenty of people swap usernames and passwords to complete the FAFSA. Thousands. Possibly millions.

But shining a light on that practice, they said, puts the new system in jeopardy. A freaked-out, security-conscious I.R.S. might shut the entire data-porting system down. (The agency referred me to the Education Department for comment.)

As you might imagine, the counselor here did not intend to poke the I.R.S. bear or create any trouble with the Education Department. But even when he hasn’t suggested password sharing, some students are coming up with the idea on their own.

“I just had a kid tell me earlier today that he was going to do it all for his parents because they don’t understand the internet,” he said.

So the counselor remains puzzled. The changes to the form and formula are supposed to allow more people to qualify for federal Pell Grants that assist low-income families. And they do — but only if families clear the kinds of hurdles that may seem low to many but prove cumbersome for some.

“For me, I hope a story like this can get them to rethink their policies,” the counselor said. “Who do they affect the most? The kinds of students I work with.”



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