A Last Push For Simplicity

As Senator Lamar Alexander nears retirement, he is making one last push to simplify applying for financial aid, and this time, he might get it.

September 18, 2020
 
C-SPAN
Senator Lamar Alexander holds up the current lengthy application for federal student aid and the shorter one he is proposing at a Senate education committee hearing.

As he nears retirement, Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate education committee, is making a final push to bring about what he’s been trying to do for at least seven years -- simplifying the form students have to fill out to get federal financial aid for college.

The Republican from Tennessee devoted the last scheduled hearing of the committee on education before he leaves office to a proposal that would reduce the number of questions asked on what he called the “dreaded” Free Application for Federal Student Aid from 108 questions to 33 as well as end the Education Department’s lengthy verification process.

Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the committee, said at the hearing that she supports the idea. And though it wouldn’t be the same as giving Alexander a gold watch for his retirement, an education lobbyist said Murray may be willing to drop her insistence that she’d only support simplifying the application as part of a larger reauthorization of the nation’s higher education law, which has not been able to find support in the Senate.

Alexander, as he has done for years, stood at the hearing and held out the long application, and then held out a much shorter sheet of paper with only 33 questions. The current application, he said deters many students from getting the aid they need to go to college, and simplifying it is important amid the coronavirus pandemic, when students are questioning the value of going to college.

“Twenty million students and their families are in the middle of what is likely the strangest first semester of college in a century,” he said. “Almost everything has changed for students, except for one thing -- students still have to answer 108 questions on the dreaded FAFSA form.”

The application process had deterred students from getting aid and going to college even before the move to online classes led students to question the value of paying for college, Alexander said. Others, meanwhile, find themselves less able to afford college because they or their families have lost jobs.

“Imagine how much less motivated anyone is to fill out those 108 FAFSA questions this year,” he said, and cited National Student Clearinghouse Research Center statistics showing that the number of Black undergraduates enrolled this summer had dropped by 8 percent.

Alexander and Murray worked together last year to pass a smaller FAFSA simplification measure, which allows the Education Department to automatically enter information families have already provided on their tax returns on the aid applications.

But taking the next step to reduce the number of questions has been caught up as part of the debate over a larger reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which Murray has said she would not support if Republicans do not include more controversial provisions, like undoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s new regulations giving greater rights to those accused by colleges of sexual assault or harassment.

“It looks like we’re not going to have a broad bill reauthorizing higher education this year,” Alexander said. "It seems to me that’s not a good reason not to finish on FAFSA simplification."

Alexander said, “Any time we can do something that important to help 20 million of the most deserving families in the country and we have substantial agreement on it, we should do it.”

A spokeswoman for Murray did not immediately return an email asking if the Washington State senator would support simplifying the application without it being tied to other issues. But Murray did not repeat the demand at the hearing.

She said instead, “The pandemic has had a profound impact on families across the country. FAFSA must be a tool to expand access to education, not a barrier. Students who need our help the most are facing the biggest burden in getting financial aid. We need to do everything we can to make their lives easier.”

Simplifying the application is important to Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee and education secretary under President George H. W. Bush, who likely wants to see it as part of his legacy of serving in the Senate, said Jon Fansmith, the American Council on Education’s director of government relations.

“It ties into a lot of things he’s concerned about. He’s really been concerned about regulatory burden,” Fansmith said. The issue isn’t a sexy one, Fansmith said, but he noted that 1.2 million people start a FAFSA each year and never finish it.

“As a capstone issue, it’s not a bad one,” he said.

And, he said, Murray could very well decide to let him have it as a goodbye gift.

Indeed, as Alexander prepares to leave office, he and Murray took pains to praise each other.

“Thank you for all you’ve done for education,” said Murray, who, even in heated political times, worked with Alexander to come up with bipartisan compromises, most notably the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

“Even when we disagree, we’ve been able to listen to each other,” Murray said.

“We may seem like an unlikely pair,” Alexander said. “But there’s a little secret -- Senator Murray was a preschool teacher and my mother ran a kindergarten in our backyard. We have found a lot of common ground because we both learned that early childhood lesson: play well together.”

A noncontroversial issue, FAFSA reform would also likely pass the Democratic House unless the Senate added partisan language to the measure, Fansmith said.

In addition to reducing the number of questions on the application, Alexander’s measure would replace what can be a lengthy verification process by the Education Department by only asking on the aid form financial questions that appear on IRS forms. The tax information would then be used to verify the information on the FAFSA.

It would also chane the methodology for how Pell Grant eligibility is calculated based on the income of families compared to the federal poverty level. Alexander's office said that would lead to  1.6 million students being able to receive the maximum amount under the program. 

Because homeless students and those in foster care often have trouble getting income information from their parents required on the FAFSA, the bill would allow them to apply for student aid as independent students.

Financial aid experts at the hearing backed the need to simplify the applications. Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Attainment Network, said the applications are so complicated, students often need help to fill them out. In 2018, graduating high school students left $2.6 billion in Pell Grants unclaimed because they didn’t complete the application.

Bridget Terry Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said, “A major impediment for many families, especially many low-income families, is the complexity of the college financial aid process.

“Families are burdened with unnecessary questions that do little to nothing to further our estimates of their financial need,” she said.

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