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FAFSA mess should force us to rethink higher education

Millions of students nationwide have been left waiting to find out whether they will receive financial aid for college in the fall. For many of them, their future hangs on aid packages that are contingent on their answers to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which has been plagued by glitches and delays this year following an overhaul.
The botched rollout of the new FAFSA form could have profound consequences, not only on college enrollment but on the economy more broadly as students walk away from educational opportunities that might have boosted their earning power.
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This mess showcases just how much students have come to rely on financial aid to be able to afford college. Tuition at public and private universities has spiraled out of control, more than tripling since the 1980s, adjusting for inflation. The path looks unsustainable.
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The FAFSA fiasco is a good opportunity to rethink a model that was intended to help low-income students but that may ultimately discourage them from even applying for college.
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The real cost of a college education is fuzzy. Most students actually pay only a fraction of the sticker price. On average, private colleges cut 56.2% of tuition for first-time undergraduate students, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. However, the tuition that’s advertised leaves some families wondering whether college is worth the cost.
As prices have gone up, so has the pool of students who rely on financial aid.
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Most students, even those who may not qualify for financial aid, are advised to fill out the FAFSA form, which is used to determine their eligibility for federal, state and school-based loans and grants.
While raising tuition, colleges have also added new degree programs, some of which offer a questionable return on investment.
Universities need to get real about the market value of their degrees. The over-dependence on FAFSA allows universities to promote higher prices and leaves students waiting for a discount: 85% receive some form of financial aid, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.
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Most Americans still see value in a college education as a path to better pay. But only 53% believe high-quality education is affordable, according to a recent survey.
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This should send a loud message to universities: Families want clarity on the costs and benefits of a college education as they make decisions that will determine their children’s futures.
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