WASHINGTON, DC (NEXSTAR) — Twenty million families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid every year, but lawmakers say many others give up because the form is too complicated.
Members of the Senate education committee have been working for years to change the application to make college more accessible and stressed during a hearing Thursday why Congress needs to act before 2021.
“It’s time to finish the FAFSA,” said Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-TN.
The former university president and Education secretary told his committee the coronavirus pandemic has completely changed the college experience except for one thing.
“Students still have to answer 108 questions on the federal FAFSA form,” Alexander said.
That form is the key to receiving federal financial aid. Alexander said the complicated application keeps millions from getting the help they qualify for and the pandemic is only making things worse.
“Many students are questioning their investment in a college education at a time when many classes are only offering online courses,” he said.
“There are so many kids that just walk away from the FAFSA,” said Sen. Doug Jones, D-AL.
Jones has been working across party lines with Alexander on legislation to shorten the FAFSA form to about 30 questions. It would also streamline the financial data verification process, preventing families from long delays that can cut off aid.
“We should not need to subject so many families to verification, a roadblock for needy students and frankly a burden for universities as well,” Rachelle Feldman, the Scholarships and Student Aid associate provost and director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the committee.
Feldman and Dr. Judith Scott-Clayton, an economics and education associate professor at Columbia University, voiced support for the bill.
“FAFSA simplification still matters because college access still matters,” Scott-Clayton said. “And perhaps now so more than ever.”
While some schools worry eliminating certain questions will make it harder to determine eligibility, Alexander and Jones are pushing to get their reforms passed by the end of the year.
The legislation would also simplify the application process for those who are homeless, in the foster system or not in touch with their parent by allowing them to apply as independent students.
Future applicants could see as early as eighth grade how much funding they could get as well.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would enable an additional 420,000 students to qualify for Pell Grants each year and an additional 1.6 million for the maximum Pell Grant award.
Congress passed the FUTURE Act last year, which included a provision that automatically transfers applicants’ tax information from the IRS to the Department of Education instead of requiring them to manually answer on the form. This potentially eliminated about 20 questions from the application, but the change is still being implemented.