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FAFSA changes could make college out of reach for some families

Students could lose thousands of dollars in need-based financial aid after Congress made changes to streamline FAFSA.
FAFSA changes could make college out of reach for some families
Posted at 11:34 AM, May 08, 2023

Norine Black stands in the middle of a field in Ames, Iowa. She carefully walks between the rows of dirt, surveying the seed that was recently planted. By the middle of the summer, the fields will be filled with corn, which will easily tower over this 70-year-old grandmother and lifelong farmer.

But right now, all Black wants to talk about is the uncertainty facing Iowa college students and their financial aid. 

"We're living in very, very challenging times," Black said, looking out over the land her husband's family has farmed for almost 100 years. 

To her, the 250 acres she and her husband farm are priceless. But the Department of Education and Congress have decided otherwise.

"The value in this land is much different than say, stock. It's not liquid. It's not gold," Black said.

For decades, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has excluded non-liquid assets, like farmland or farm equipment, from being reported as part of a family's income — meaning businesses with fewer than 100 employees didn't have to report those business assets toward a family's adjusted gross income.

But changes to the FAFSA process could put college out of reach for farm families like the Blacks. Farms now have to report their land as an asset, and the same goes for small businesses, meaning college students from those families will be eligible for less financial assistance.

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The move was made by Congress in 2021 as a way to streamline FAFSA, aimed at making more financial aid available.

"I think our college-going rate will suffer because of this," said Mark Wiederspan, the executive director of Iowa College Aid.

Under the changes, in a farm family with an adjusted gross income of $60,000, a student could receive thousands in need-based financial aid. By counting the value of a farm on paper, though, not just a family's income, that same student's need-based financial aid might drop to $0.

"They're not gonna be able to afford to go to college," Wiederspan added. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an estimated 85% of college students receive some type of financial aid in this country, or roughly 17.7 million students. It's unclear right now how many students these FAFSA changes will impact, since right now, families with small businesses or farms typically aren't reporting those assets. 

Community colleges across Iowa have spoken up in recent weeks concerned about the impacts the changes might have. 

"We're in the farm belt. This is not good for our families," said Wayne Dille, who serves as the director of financial aid for Central College.

Dille said he already has students worried they'll have to drop out of school next year if they lose their financial aid.

"It's a game changer. [Kids are wondering,] 'Can I go back to Central next year?' Yeah it's rough," he added.

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College administrators across Iowa and the U.S. are so concerned, they're calling on Congress to do something. Since Congress enacted the changes legislatively, they are the only ones who can update the policy. 

In an interview with Scripps News, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley told us he's working with a bipartisan group of senators. He's introduced a bill that would base students' financial aid on their parents' income assets.

"It's gotta be changed by this fall … This could very much reduce the help that students are getting and reduce their enrollment," Grassley said. 

Without that student aid, Grassley is concerned many high schoolers will defer going to college or take on more loans to pay for school.

"You might have to borrow money on your farm. This increase in assets is going to put families in a condition where they are asset-rich but income poor," he added. 

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who is a third-generation farmer from Montana, shared his perspective with Scripps News. 

"I know firsthand that one-size-fits-all policies from Washington don't work for Montana's family farmers, ranchers and small businesses," he said. "That's why I'm teaming up with Republicans and Democrats to make sure Montana's family farmers and ranchers don't have to pay a higher price to send their kids to college. This bipartisan bill will pave the way for young Montana leaders to succeed well into the future while ensuring our family farmers can continue to feed the world."

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Back in Ames, Iowa, Black's concern falls to her grandchildren and whether these changes could prevent them from being able to afford college in the next few years.

"Farmers are already in a lot of debt," she said. "They are saying now, statistically, you can't buy a farm as a young farmer and go out and make enough to sustain yourself."

For now, farm families will keep working the land, like they always do — hoping the sun doesn't set on the prospect of higher education, for future generations.

The Department of Education says it's working on making sure students from all backgrounds have access to a brighter future by making student aid for higher education more accessible. 

In a statement, a department spokesperson told Scripps News: "This year, FSA will implement bipartisan legislation passed by Congress that mandates updates to the FAFSA form and the financial aid formulas that rely upon it – including the statutory changes regarding family farms. The 2024–25 FAFSA form will include an updated financial aid eligibility calculation, allow applicants to consent to FSA directly and securely accessing critical tax information from the IRS, and require some applicants to answer as few as 18 questions — down from 103 possible questions on the old form. We know that families, students, counselors, and schools need information to ensure that students can make the best use of the FAFSA form, and the Department is also launching a suite of new resources called the FAFSA Roadmap to help families and their partners navigate the revamped FAFSA experience."

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