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Government’s FAFSA failure

Federal involvement in higher education leads to confusion, delay ... and manipulation

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Government’s FAFSA failure
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Decision day for prospective college students came and went on May 1, but this year incoming freshmen are facing an uncertain future. There’s much to be concerned about on college campuses these days, from protest movements and cancel culture to woke ideology and administrative bloat. A financial aid debacle is unfolding in real time as well, as a combination of bureaucratic incompetence and political machinations have left graduating high school students all over the country confused about their prospects for the next school year.

Part of the annual ritual for incoming and returning college students is completion of the FAFSA (Free Application for Financial Student Aid). The FAFSA is a government form that produces, among other things, a number at the end which is supposedly the amount of money a family can put toward funding education, the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The FAFSA allows students to be considered for federally funded student aid programs, such as Pell Grants and federal student loans. But most schools, whether public or private, also rely on the FAFSA to help determine the baseline for the aid that they themselves offer students. So when the federal government redesigned the FAFSA, intending to streamline and simplify the process, it was welcomed by many as a way to lessen the pain of seemingly endless forms, disclosures, and promissory notes.

The 2024-25 FAFSA fell victim to politics, however, as other priorities in the Biden administration helped derail the rollout of the new form and process. As Adam Harris put it in The Atlantic, “The new FAFSA rollout did not have to be this way. The Biden administration could have focused on making sure that FAFSA worked, though it would likely have had to punt on other priorities, such as student-debt relief.” But the politicization of the FAFSA is just one more instance in the broader ideological challenge evident in the Department of Education and the federal government more broadly, and more evidence that evangelical schools need to reassess their relationship to government funding and the oversight that comes along with it.

The federal government’s role in higher education expanded greatly through post-war initiatives such as the GI Bill and grant programs aimed at improving access for poorer Americans. But what started as targeted government interventions has grown into an overweening and dominant position in American higher education. This is most evident at public schools and universities. But through the subsidized loan programs that are facilitated by the FAFSA, which has become a federalized gatekeeper for college funding, the federal government has also attached increasingly strict and arbitrary conditions to its funding scheme. The latest rule changes to Title IX are only the most recent and most outrageous thus far.

The federal government has attached increasingly strict and arbitrary conditions to its funding scheme.

Schools like Hillsdale College and Grove City College have been wise enough to either never accept government funding and the strings that are inevitably attached, or to wean themselves off of this kind of government support. Their wisdom should inform the approaches of more Christian colleges.

The great Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper, who founded the Free University in Amsterdam in 1880, rightly identified the need to be free from what he called the “money purse” of government funding. “Money, it cannot be said often enough,” observed Kuyper, “creates power for the one who gives and power over the one who receives.” This insight is why the Free University was envisioned at its founding to be free of state control and supervision.

The Biden administration has continued to force through student-loan forgiveness programs without much regard for their legality. These efforts are more about currying favor with indebted college graduates than reflective of principled attempts to reform the higher education crisis. The current FAFSA debacle begins at the other end of this pipeline, which would enable the creation of new generations of students indebted to the federal government, who would only later be hopeful for generous loan forgiveness programs—with their loyalty at the voting booth as part of the bargain.

Higher education needs significant and structural reform, and the Biden administration’s incapacity to revise a simple financial aid form is just one more bit of evidence that the entire system needs to be freed from federal tyranny and manipulation. Some schools have seen this from the beginning, and we can only hope that others come to this realization before it is too late. And in the meantime it is students, their families, and the broader citizenry who will suffer.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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