ED, IRS working to simplify FAFSA form

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) asks Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for an update on efforts to simplify the FAFSA during a Senate appropriations hearing on Thursday. (Image: Screenshot from the hearing online)

The U.S. Education Department (ED) hopes to soon have a timeline for when it will implement a streamlined federal student aid application that will, in part, require the Internal Revenues Service (IRS) rather than students and families to provide certain income information to determine eligibility.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Senate education appropriators on Thursday that ED and the IRS are working on “implementing steps” to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) asked DeVos about the progress of revamping the form. He and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) crafted a bipartisan bill signed by the president in December that permanently restored funding for historically black colleges and universities and simplifies the FAFSA.

Alexander noted that in Tennessee, a significant number of new high school graduates can attend a community college tuition-free if they complete the FAFSA. But the biggest obstacle for many families over the past few years has been completing the form because it’s cumbersome, he said.

Southwest Tennessee Community College loses 1,500 students a year because of the complexity of the FAFSA, said Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee that is trying to write a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year. 

Ditching verification

Another headache for many families applying for federal student aid has been the so-called verification process, through which the federal government crosschecks the information families include on the FAFSA with IRS information. 

“Of course, many students do make a mistake, and that slows down the money they get,” Alexander said, noting that the process affects about 5.5 million families annually, including 100,000 in Tennessee. The legislation approved late last year would require the IRS to directly provide that information for 22 FAFSA questions, eliminating the need for verification for most families.

On funding matters 

The secretary’s appearance before Senate education appropriators on Thursday to answer their questions about the president’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal was more cordial than last week’s discussion with House appropriators. Like in the House, Senate Republicans said they were open to the budget’s suggestions.

However, some of the recommendations that would affect higher education won’t likely get much support from either side of the aisle. For example, it’s “almost certain” appropriators would not follow the administration’s proposal to cut TRIO and the Federal Work-Study program, said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), who chairs the Senate education appropriations subcommittee.

“But, again, I’m glad to talk to you about why you think those programs aren’t doing what they should be doing,” he said to DeVos. 

The secretary — who answered a range of questions, from the department’s upcoming Title IX rules, to the department’s plan for dealing with the coronavirus — highlighted the president’s pitch to significantly increase funding for career and technical education. She noted that the added funding would correspond with states submitting their plans to receive Perkins Act funding. Those plans are due this spring, and many include efforts to create more opportunities for K-12 students to explore career options.

“We’re seeing some interesting, different kinds of approaches and plans,” DeVos said.

The secretary also fielded a few questions about expanding Pell Grant eligibility for short-term programs, which was again proposed in the president’s budget proposal. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) said she would like to see the details of an ED pilot program that is allowing some colleges to provide Pell grants for such short-term programs. The information would help lawmakers gauge how well it is working, she said.  

About the Author

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