A bipartisan breakthrough in the Senate

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has long supported simplifying the FAFSA. Here he rolls out the form to show its length. (Photo: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A bipartisan plan crafted this week by leaders on the Senate education committee would simplify the federal student aid application process, streamline income-driven student loan repayments and make permanent $255 million in annual funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Washington) and several other committee members late Tuesday announced the proposal as part of a bipartisan amendment to the House-passed FUTURE Act. The agreement breaks through a logjam between the two parties that has stymied the appropriations process as well as progress on efforts to revamp the Higher Education Act.

“It’s hard to think of a piece of legislation that would have more of a lasting impact on minority students and their families than this bill,” Alexander said in a statement in announcing the compromise.

“By permanently extending funding for these valuable institutions and streamlining our student aid system, this deal is a win-win,” Murray said. “Now, I look forward to continuing to work with my Republican colleagues on efforts to overhaul the Higher Education Act in a comprehensive, bipartisan way that does right by all students.”

Senate committee leaders noted that savings from reforming the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — which the Congressional Budget Office estimates to be $2.8 billion over 10 years — would be used to pay for the permanent funding for HBCUs and MSIs.

Higher education advocates, such as the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), welcomed the news.

“We commend Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray on their willingness to work together to help advance student success in higher education,” said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus. “Community colleges serve the majority of minority students in the United States, and anything that removes barriers to attendance helps our colleges to increase student success and completion. We look forward to working together across the aisle to advance legislation that supports these initiatives to decrease the achievement gaps.”

Political standstill

The House in September passed the FUTURE Act (H.R. 2486), which would have extended by two years funding for HBCUs, MSIs and tribal colleges. However, Alexander objected to holding a vote on the House-passed bill as he sought to make the discussions part of his efforts to reauthorize HEA.

In October, Alexander co-introduced the FAFSA Simplification Act (S. 2667) to streamline FAFSA as part of a legislative package to rework HEA. However, Democrats on the committee want to see comprehensive HEA legislation — as was passed by the House education committee in October — rather than the Republicans’ piecemeal approach.

Reducing ‘verification’

The Senate amendment package floated Tuesday includes simplifying the FAFSA, which has been a long-time priority for Alexander, who plans to step down from the Senate next year. It would cut the number of questions on the FAFSA, allow the Education Department (ED) to request tax return data already give to the IRS, and significantly reduce the number of students selected for the student aid “verification” process, which has vexed college financial aid officers and students.

The committee noted that currently 5.5 million students go through verification annually to make sure the information they give to ED and IRS is the same. The verification process is a significant burden on both students and financial aid administrators with more than half of students eligible for Pell grants selected for verification in the 2015-16 award year, according to education advocates.

About the Author

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