If there’s one issue that should (not that always does) unify Americans across party lines, it’s the education of our posterity. And now, after a series of changes, the White House is making the process of applying to and selecting colleges easier and more technologically advanced than ever before. On Saturday, President Barack Obama unveiled a new college scorecard that contains an overwhelming amount of data on everything from average annual cost to graduation rate to how much graduates earn a decade after leaving their respective institutions. And then on Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made another groundbreaking announcement: “Today, we’re lending a hand to millions of high school students who want to go to college and who’ve worked hard. We’re announcing an easier, earlier FAFSA,” the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Thanks, Obama!
Both developments are geared toward removing traditional barriers to entry when it comes to higher education, one in terms of information, and the other in terms of finances. The scorecard, which NPR describes as a “data dump of epic proportions,” certainly provides you with more information than you could possibly know what to do with, but at least it’s an attempt at helping prospective students and parents make an important decision about the next four years of their lives. The scorecard includes comparisons and information on programs, campus and class size, and geographic location, median income levels, graduation rates, and loan repayment statistics, just to name a few data points. And while “it’s good information to have,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, “it doesn’t tell an individual student what to do.”
Then there’s the FAFSA update, which may be the more exciting of the two federal improvements. Previously, a rather illogical FAFSA timeline meant that students had to apply to college in the fall, but then wait until January to apply for financial aid. But this unfortunate timing lag used to mean that students could be accepted by a school before they knew how much financial aid they’d receive. Now, the FAFSA will be released in October, streamlining the entire process.
“This puts things in a logical timeline,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit policy and research organization. “It means students will be able to apply for aid earlier and more easily, and make better informed decisions about where to apply and how to pay for college.”
Better yet, students are now able to fill out these government forms with their parents’ tax data from two years ago, rather than just the previous year. When these new standards go into place next year, high school seniors will be able to “electronically retrieve tax information filed for an earlier year,” thereby eliminating the “need to transcribe information from previous applications or estimate answers to up to 20 ‘high-stakes’ questions,” Asher noted.
“It’s really a win-win for everybody,” Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told NPR. “Ultimately, this is gonna mean less work for [students] and less work for schools.”
So thanks, Obama. Seriously.