Reporter’s notebook

Focused on FAFSA

The chair of the Senate committee that is leading efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) this week introduced a bill to simplify the federal student aid application process.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Tuesday co-introduced a bill (S. 2667) to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Making it easier to complete the FAFSA is part of a legislative package he introduced this month to rework HEA. However, Democrats on the committee want to see comprehensive HEA legislation rather than the Republicans’ piecemeal approach. The two sides have not been able to agree on a bipartisan HEA, and Alexander is eager to at least address key parts of his plan before he retires in 2020.

Alexander noted that a House HEA bill introduced by Democrats last week also would simplify the FAFSA.

“It is not the same as our bill, but it heads in the same direction,” he said on the Senate floor when he introduced his bill.

The former governor, U.S. education secretary and university president has made simplifying FAFSA a central part of his HEA plan, something he’s championed for the past five years. Although about 20 million Americans complete the FAFSA annually, many families are intimidated by the long list of questions, Alexander said. He added that some families abandon the application if their FAFSA is flagged for verification, which is a process to verify tax information.

The bill would:

  • Reduce the number of questions on the FAFSA from 108 to between 17 and 20.
  • Rework the verification process to decrease the number of students selected for verification.
  • Allow students to find out as early as eighth grade their potential Pell Grant award so they can start to plan for college sooner.

Alexander noted that many colleges and states also use the FAFSA for their own student aid and scholarship programs.

Tackling the ‘work penalty’

A bill reintroduced in the House and Senate by two Democrats aims to increase the amount working students can earn without that income counting against them in determining their need-based federal financial aid, such as Pell grants.

Students who work while attending school often receive less financial aid because of their work income, according to Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Rep. Ami Bera (D-California). As a result, many students opt to work more hours or stop working and take on more debt to finish their education.

The two Democrats on Tuesday reintroduced The Working Students Act (S. 2655), which would adjust the so-called income protection allowance (IPA). The IPA shields a part of a student’s or parent’s income from consideration when determining eligibility for need-based aid. The bill would provide a proportional increase of 35 percent to the IPA for the 2019-2020 award year. Increases in subsequent years are indexed to inflation.

The bill would help the neediest students, according to the lawmakers. For example, it would allow a working student who is a single parent with two children to earn nearly $12,000 more in income without facing a reduction in federal financial aid.

“This small change will stop penalizing students who work, protect their financial aid awards and encourage them to finish their degrees sooner – and with less debt,” according to a summary of the bill.

Pushed out by automation

A bicameral bill introduced this week by Democrats would create a pilot program to help transition workers displaced by automation into higher-skilled jobs in industries that need workers.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Doug Jones (D-Alabama) and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Illinois) on Tuesday introduced the Investing in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act (S. 2659), which would focus on the needs of workers in industries likely to be affected by rapidly evolving technologies. Nearly half (47 percent) of all U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation technology, with workers who earn less than $40,000 more likely to lose their jobs due to automation, according to the bill.

The legislation would create a grant program through the U.S. Labor Department to support industry or sector partnerships to develop and carry out training programs for workers who are, or are likely to become, dislocated because of advances in technology, including automation. It also would increase funding for National Dislocated Worker Grants and amend the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to ensure workers who are dislocated by automation are included in WIOA programs.

Facing food insecurity

A new documentary premiering next month explores the issue of food insecurity among college students. “Hungry to Learn,” directed by Geeta Gandbhir and co-produced by Soledad O’Brien, follows the journey of four students and includes commentary by Sara Goldrick Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, and a nationally known advocate for students facing hunger and homelessness.

HUNGER SIZZLE NEW V11 from Starfish Media Group on Vimeo.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.