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The Top Ten Ways A FAFSA Is Like A Colonoscopy

The following is a guest article provided by J. Randy Green, Director of Financial Aid at Wittenberg University

Last summer I read an article about a famous doctor who found himself on the patient side of a medical procedure.   The procedure he was going through reminded me of a process we deal with in the world of financial aid.  My epiphany?  The FAFSA is the higher education equivalent of a colonoscopy.

When I shared this revelation with colleagues, I found they did not necessarily see the links between the two.   So, in an effort to defend my good name, I present:

The Top Ten Ways a FAFSA is Like a Colonoscopy

Number 10No one really likes to talk about it. Professionals attend training sessions on them with regularity and entire industries have arisen around them, but you will raise eyebrows if you welcome guests to your Super Bowl party with, “Come on in – Green Bay’s up by 3, my son qualifies for a Pell Grant, and my colon’s clean as a whistle!”

Number 9 At some point in your life, you should go through it. Although you will probably complete your FAFSA before your first colonoscopy, experts recommend everyone go through them at the proper time.

Number 8Timing is important. A FAFSA should be filed after October 1st and before the deadline posted by the college or university.  Missing this window may mean missing an opportunity for college funding or even missing out on college altogether.  A recent study[i] recommends that colonoscopies be done at age 45 for men and 50 for women unless risk factors are present that would encourage earlier testing.  Having one too late may mean missing out on more than college.

Number 7You should do it even if you “know” you won’t find anything.  With the FAFSA, many people “know” they won’t qualify for financial aid, but I guarantee programs exist that provide scholarships or grants to FAFSA filers regardless of the results.  Not everyone qualifies, but if you don’t file a FAFSA, you certainly won’t.  With the colonoscopy, people who live right, eat right, and exercise right still need to have one.   Hopefully, the FAFSA process finds something for you and the colonoscopy doesn’t.

Number 6No one does it for fun.  Although there may be people out there with different ideas about this, I trust most of us could find more enjoyable ways to spend a few hours.

Number 5Product of the 60’s. Most higher education officials trace today’s popular financial aid programs to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which led to the eventual creation of the federal methodology formula and the FAFSA form.  The first colonoscopy procedures were done in 1969.[ii] Somehow, I don’t find this surprising.

Number 4Great effort has gone into making the experience as painless as possible.  For the FAFSA, there are professionals you can pay to help you, and there is a free event called College Goal Sunday in February to do the same.  The online process uses “skip logic” so that you only have to answer questions that pertain to your situation and results are available almost immediately.  Colonoscopy imaging has been greatly improved with smaller, flexible scopes and better imaging techniques.

Number 3Preparation is the key. In either case, if you don’t prepare properly, someone will have some crap to deal with.  With the FAFSA, preparation entails having access to the figures requested by the form (income, assets, identifying information).  It is helpful to have completed tax returns in hand or already filed when completing the FAFSA, but these may not be available by the school’s deadline (see number 8 above).  Preparation for a colonoscopy takes about three days, requiring strict adherence to the prescribed intake of food and fluids and other preparatory steps recommended by the physician.

Number 2Garbage in, garbage out.  To emphasize the importance of the preparation step: failure to prepare properly may have ramifications.  On the FAFSA, you will have to correct any information that turns out to be incorrect and you may be selected for “verification”, which is a little like an audit that the financial aid office staff will perform before they will release your grants or loans.  With the colonoscopy, you may have to go through all of those lengthy and involved preparation steps again, including giving up your fettuccini for three days of broth and juices.

Number 1We still have a ways to go. Virtual colonoscopy is currently being introduced and, while it still requires significant preparation, there is no need to sedate the patient with the new procedure.  The three-dimensional virtual colon created by the scan can be constructed in a few minutes, with the results available for analysis and interpretation at the doctor’s leisure.  With the FAFSA, increasing connectivity between federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education may allow the application process to shorten to, perhaps, just identifying which colleges you are considering.

So in closing, as a sometimes humbling, potentially embarrassing, discomfiting but important procedure, the FAFSA is higher education’s colonoscopy.


[i]McMillen, Matt. “Austrian Study Shows That Men Develop Cancer and Precancerous Growths Earlier Than Women”.  WebMD Health News. September 27, 2011.

[ii] American Journal of Gastroenterology. September 1989.

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8 Responses to “The Top Ten Ways A FAFSA Is Like A Colonoscopy”

  1. Gwen says:

    I loved the article.

  2. dr says:

    Not bad, makes the point while avoiding the obvious anal-ogy: Both are a pain in the butt that could save you from a much bigger one; a bigger pain, that is.

  3. diane says:

    Educational Opportunity Centers funded by the federal government help students of all ages complete college apps and student financial aid apps — both the FAFSA and the Profile brought to you by CollegeBoard. Year round every year we assist students with these forms. If a FAFSA is like a colonoscopy, a Profile is like open heart surgery without anesthesia. EOC’s can be found under TRIO grant program listings and provide services free of charge.

  4. Meriweh says:

    If one cannot complete a form that is basically an open-book test about themselves and their family, how is it that individual will be able to complete a natural science requirement? Anyone who thinks it is too difficult, is going to be in for a huge surprise when it comes to complete colleg coursework.

    • Randy Green says:

      I think it’s more a matter of not being familiar with the process. For example, the question about “federal income tax paid” is sometimes answered with the amount withheld from the paycheck, sometimes with the check amount they send in, sometimes as a zero “because I get a refund”, and sometimes including self-employment tax — all of which are wrong. The instructions are clear (line “X” from 1040 or line “Y” from 1040A), but unfamiliar.

      And yes, some people are just dopey.

  5. J B Jones says:

    Changing the dates for the new deadlines – still a great article.

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