I’ve been linking my posts to the federal student aid sites for years, but I haven’t done it with any enthusiasm.
These websites, which have included information about federal student loans and grants, have been disjointed and borderline unhelpful. The websites reeked of bureaucratic jargon and didn’t provide any context for federal aid programs. I felt sorry for the parents and students who had to slog through them and wondered if many of them found the answers they were looking for. I doubted it.
I was pleasantly surprised on Friday when I visited StudentAid.gov and discovered it was sporting a new look. Thinking I had made a mistake when I landed on this federal student aid home page, I doublechecked the URL.
A Fresh New Look
As it turned out, the federal government rolled out the new look on Friday, but it represented more than an aesthetic change. StudentAid.gov combines content and interactive tools such as the FAFSA4caster from other federal aid websites into one spot and is trying to make the information more assessable. Right on the home page, for instance, are links to information on the types of federal aid, who qualifies for aid, how you apply for loans and how to manage them.
A Dramatic Improvement
The purpose of the remodeled new site is to help students better plan and pay for college in an easy-to-understand format. It also features videos and infographics to help answer the most frequently asked questions about financial aid. StudentAid.gov is fully accessible on tablets and smartphones.
I think the Education Department’s remodel is fantastic and I hope the drive to make financial aid understandable to families continues. One way the site is helpful is by providing an overview of the vast financial aid system rather than focusing entirely on pieces of it. For instance, in the section on types of aid, it provides a breakdown of the four main sources of aid: federal government, state governments, colleges themselves and nonprofit/private organizations. You can click on links to find out more about each of them.
Room for Improvement
StudentAid.gov’s new look was tested with students, parents and borrowers, and the U.S. Department of Education will continue to make improvements and updates based on users’ feedback. And I’m happy that the department wants to continue to make the site more valuable because there is room for improvement.
The section on Pell Grants, for instance, doesn’t provide families with income information on just who qualifies for Pell Grants, or any other federal grants for that matter. To qualify for the full Pell Grant, for instance, a student must be low-income. If a family makes over $23,000 a year, they can typically forget about qualifying for the maximum Pell Grant of $5,500.
Most families that I’ve talked to aren’t aware that you have to be poor or lower middle-class to qualify for federal grants. You can’t find this information on the new or old federal sites. I have the same complaint about the remodeled site’s explanation of unsubsidized and subsidized Stafford Loans, which are the most popular federal students loans. The site should give families some indication of who qualifies for the more favorable subsidized loans.
The Department of Education should be applauded for their efforts and I’d urge all of you to take a look.
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Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, which was released in May.