Senate may simplify FAFSA in forthcoming HEA bill

Simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) would remove a key barrier to college access, particularly for lower-income students, said Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, at a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing Tuesday.

Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), who once served as U.S. education secretary, said he aims to include a simplified FAFSA in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which the committee plans to take up in early 2018.

The overly complex FAFSA – with 102 questions on 10 pages plus 66 pages of instructions – discourages lower-income students from applying for student aid and is the “single biggest impediment” for students who want to take advantage of the Tennessee Promise, Alexander said.

Alexander added that he is working with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) to reduce the FAFSA form to just 15 to 25 questions by automatically incorporating tax information from the Internal Revenue Service.

Hurdles to aid

“Community colleges persistently have the lowest FAFSA application completion rate of any sector of higher education,” McCallin told the committee. “This is especially troubling given the fact that, overall, community college students and their families have lower incomes than students in any other non-profit sector of higher education.”

Ten percent of community college students don’t apply for financial aid because the FAFSA application is too difficult, and 15 percent don’t understand how to apply or don’t think they are eligible, according to McCallin.

While about 94,000 students in the Colorado system submitted a FAFSA last year, only about 53,600 actually completed the financial aid process, she said. Just over 37,000 were selected for verification, and 45 percent of those students completed the verification process.

“The complexity of the form is one of the reasons for the reduced number of students actually receiving aid,” McCallin said. “Simplification of the FAFSA form and process could make a significant difference in the ability of students to access federal and state aid to pursue their college degree.”

Students need help

In Colorado, financial aid administrators spend 25 percent of their time helping students fill out the FAFSA and verifying students’ financial data, McCallin noted.

If they didn’t have to spend so much time on the verification process, they could instead focus on academic advising, mentoring, helping students address financial emergencies, helping them apply for scholarships and outreach to high school students.

Colleges battle FAFSA obstacles

Elaine Williams, a shelter diversion specialist at the YWCA of Richmond, Virginia, told the committee she would have appreciated a simpler FAFSA and more help from college advisers when she tried to access financial aid as a homeless student. She urged the committee to reduce the documentation requirements and require colleges to designate a single point of contact for homeless youths.

Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said when students receive help filling out the FAFSA, enrollment and retention increase by 8 percent.

The complexity of the FAFSA isn’t necessary to predict how much aid students should receive, Scott-Clayton said. Both Pell Grant eligibility and the expected family contribution can be replicated with only a few questions. Basing Pell awards on data the IRS already has would maximize transparency while making the application process much easier, she said.

Students who receive federal benefits from Supplemental Security Income or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be automatically eligible for a Pell Grant, proposed Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

For students who file a 1040 tax return, the federal government would already have enough information to determine their eligibility for student aid, Draeger said, while students with more complicated tax returns should have to submit more information.

Three key questions

Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said the application for a Pell Grant only needs to have three simple questions regarding family income, family size and family structure? – and that data could be downloaded from the IRS.

McCallin agreed with that proposal and noted the Colorado system could adapt the same form to determine the amount of state aid students could receive. “Access is far more important than having 100 percent accurate data,” she said.

Simplifying the FAFSA is a good first step in revising the Higher Education Act, said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), but much more needs to be done, such as addressing college affordability, reducing student debt, ensuring a safe learning environment on campus, and providing students enough information so they can make good choices about their future.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) urged her colleagues to look at the bigger picture. While the committee is talking about the need to improve a form, she said, Congress is planning tax cuts that will amount to “a giant tax giveaway to billionaires and corporations” that would “add trillions to the national debt” and ultimately make college less affordable.

New FAFSA app

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lauded the committee for taking on simplifying the FAFSA as it looks to reauthorize HEA. During a speech in Orlando, Florida, at the Federal Student Aid Training Conference, DeVos announced that ED will create a mobile app for FAFSA.

“We will make the financial aid process modern, streamlined, more accessible and simply easier for students,” she said in her prepared remarks. “This initiative also includes cyber security to protect personal data. This is a responsibility the department has neglected for too long. We are making marked improvements because there are serious and ever-iterating threats.”

ED this year closed an online tool that allowed students and families to tap IRS data for information to include on their applications after it was apparently hacked.

What looms ahead

At the conference, DeVos also re-emphasized the need to address access to all postsecondary education and not to just focus on four-year degrees.

“There are many avenues to gain what individual students need: industry-recognized certificates, credentials and licensures, badges, micro-degrees, apprenticeships, two-year degrees, four-year degrees and advanced degrees,” she said.

Also, in what could be a glimpse into what the Trump administration may want to see in HEA reauthorization, DeVos called HEA a “child of the 1960s” that has to be revised to meet current and future opportunities.

“Government doesn’t have all the answers,” she said. “Business leaders, community and faith leaders, parents and students do. So let’s empower them instead.”

She added that she looks forward to working with the Senate HELP Committee and Congress to “complete this important work and send a student-centric, forward-thinking bill to the president’s desk.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford / Matthew Dembicki
Ellie Ashford is an associate editor and Matthew Dembicki is editor of CCDaily.