Politico: Alexander pushes standalone FAFSA simplification bill

Posted on October 22, 2019

The Republican chairman of the Senate education committee is pushing to advance a plan to simplify how students apply for federal financial aid as a standalone measure rather than as part of a package of higher education bills.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) outlined his new strategy on the Senate floor Tuesday night, introducing a bipartisan bill to simplify the FAFSA along with Sen.Doug Jones (D-Ala.). Alexander said the legislation “can and should pass the Senate and House this year.”

The FAFSA changes had been included as part of the higher education plan, S. 2557 (116), which Alexander unveiled last month as he blocked a two-year extension of expiring funding for historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions. That plan calls for permanent funding for HBCUs as well as other provisions such as expanding Pell Grants for short-term training programs. 

But Democrats, led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), have sharply opposed Alexander’s approach, saying they want to see a more comprehensive overhaul of the Higher Education Act. Critics also accused Alexander of holding funding for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions “hostage” as he seeks to advance the other higher education bills. 

The FAFSA simplification plan that Alexander is now pushing as a standalone measure would reduce the number of questions on the form from 108 to between 18 and 30.

The bill — dubbed the FAFSA Simplification Act — would also reduce the need for “burdensome verification” of the information students provide, Alexander said. It would also allow students to find out how much aid will be available to them as early as eighth grade.

There’s broad bipartisan support in Congress, at least in principle, for making it easier for families to apply for financial aid. Alexander has been working on the issue for at least five years across two presidential administrations, which he noted on the Senate floor Tuesday as he unfurled his go-to visual aid of a long, paper FAFSA.

But it’s not clear how the standalone FAFSA measure will fit into other ongoing negotiations in Congress over overhauling the Higher Education Act.

Alexander said that the FAFSA simplification plan that House Democrats included as part of their sweeping higher education overhaul last week is different from his proposal but said it still “heads in the same direction.”

Alexander said that he hopes to see the bill become law “by the beginning of next year.”