U.S. Senate panel examines ways to simplify student aid process

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is examining proposals to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. File Photo by Darren415/Shutterstock/UPI

Nov. 28 (UPI) — A U.S. Senate committee Tuesday heard testimony on ways to simply the application process for federal college student aid.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is examining proposals to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

This year, an estimated $2.3 billion in federal financial aid grants wasn’t claimed because eligible graduates failed to complete and submit the FAFSA.

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, testified at Tuesday’s hearing. NASFAA represents financial aid administrators at 2,800 U.S. colleges and universities.

“Over the years, the federal government has grappled with the simplification versus accuracy tradeoff, sometimes adding questions to the FAFSA to try to achieve more specificity about a family’s circumstances, and in other years taking away questions that were so complex they were deterring some students and families from even completing the form,” Draeger said in prepared testimony. “Today, the average completion time is approximately 31 minutes… a vast improvement from the time it took to fill out the form when it was first developed. Even with such improvements, we can still do better.”

The federal government provides $40 billion in need-based aid every year, including $27 billion in Pell Grants, according to the College Board. College institutions awarded $59 billion in aid.

“The challenge before us is to put together an application that is as simple as possible but yet allows us to distinguish the truly needy from those who are not,” Draeger said.

“With today’s technology we no longer need to make the tradeoff between simplification and accuracy, as we’ve had to do in the past. By relying on timing and technology, NASFAA believes Congress can dramatically reduce the number of questions for all applicants, but most of all for low-income students.

He added that the government should rely on existing databases where applicants have already gone through certain federal-means tested benefit application processes. Information already comes from the Internal Revenue Service’s Data Retrieval Tool.

On Nov. 16, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., introduced the Simple FAFSA Act of 2017.

“For many students, obtaining a college education or post-graduate certification is their ticket to a fulfilling career and a good paying job, but for students seeking federal financial aid, Free Application for Federal Student Aid imposes burdensome requirements that too often create a barrier to entry for federal grants and loans, not a window of opportunity,” she said in a statement.

In her legislation, the Department of Education would be required to provide the form in at least 11 foreign languages and in a format accessible to students with disabilities.

One provision reduces the number of questions by placing a student on one of three pathways, depending on the student or their parent’s finances, in a process backed by the NASFAA. The paths are low-income students, uncomplicated financials based on previous year’s tax forms and those with parents who filed a 1040. In the later category, information from federal databases would be used.

The legislation also eliminates drug questions on the application because they disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color, the lawmakers say. And the bill also will open federal financial aid to Dreamers, immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, speaking at a conference of student aid professionals in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday pledged to make the aid proceed “process modern, streamlined, more accessible and simply easier for students – and you.”

That includes rolling out a mobile app, she said.

‘Students should be able to complete their FAFSA easily on their phones and in one sitting,” she said in prepared remarks. “They should receive expert, tailored advice about their options. It’s called ‘student aid,’ after all.”


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