Considering the government received 19 million FAFSA forms in 2016-'17, making it easier could help a lot of potential borrowers.
"We want the experience of a student to be every bit as good as if they were a customer of American Express, a customer of a major credit union," Johnson says.
He should know. His hiring was controversial with some Democrats because he comes from the private banking world. Johnson has worked for VISA and even run his own, private student loan company. Since coming to the department, Johnson says he's fast-tracked the development of the My Student Aid app.
Ultimately, the department hopes the app will be a one-stop shop for students. A place they can research colleges, check their loan balance and even make a payment. But the real game-changer comes soon, Oct. 1, when borrowers will be able to fill out the FAFSA on their phones using the new app.
"Many families, including low-income families, rely on smartphones solely for their internet access," says Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network.
Cook says, in the past, many students had no choice but to fill out the FAFSA in a school computer lab. They still can, especially if they're getting help from a counselor, but now they can also take it home — for the questions that only a parent can answer. They'll also be able to access the IRS' data-retrieval tool, which helps students by autopopulating the FAFSA with key tax information.
Cook believes this new app also changes the game for school counselors and advocates, like her, who are trying to spread the word about the importance of applying for federal student aid. A mobile FAFSA allows them "to meet students where they are, at festivals, at football games. To meet parents where they are, maybe at brownbag lunches or financial aid nights."
Maybe you're thinking, 'This sounds great, but what does the Education Department know about building a good app?'
It turns out, Cook's group worked with the department to do early user-testing.
"Students flew through this app," Cook says. "It was amazing to see how native they are to using apps. They said the app was easy. Parents as well."
Cook says they did find a few hang-ups, and the department insists it's listening and already making changes.
The fact is, this form still won't be easy for everyone. It never will be — unless Congress radically rewrites the FAFSA. For now, though, students can take some comfort knowing that it may not be easy, but it did just get easier.
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