Daily Memphian: Alexander bill aims to shorten students' financial aid form

Posted on October 28, 2019

Parents and students worn down by filling out a mile-long financial aid form could get a break under legislation designed to simplify the federal application.

Legislation sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama would reduce the number of questions some 400,000 Tennessee families answer each year on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Nearly 20 million families nationwide apply for federal student aid. Alexander introduced the measure recently.

“The 108-question FAFSA is one of the biggest challenges low-income students who want to go to college face,” said Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee. “Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told me that Tennessee has the highest rate of filling out the FAFSA, but it is still the single biggest impediment to more students enrolling in Tennessee Promise, our state’s free two-year community college program.”

Alexander said his bill will reduce the application to 18 to 30 basic questions about a student, his or her family and plans to attend college, as well cut down the verification process that stops Pell grant payments while families gather federal tax information to submit for the application.

Jones, who serves on the Senate education committee, called the form one of the most important documents a family will complete before a student enters college but, as a father of three children who attended college, he said he understands “how difficult and frustrating” the form can be to complete.

Parents who are not computer savvy could be intimidated by the process, but a paper form is available on request.

Alexander and a bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsored legislation in 2015 to reduce FAFSA to two questions, and in the past few years the bill has been altered to make the application 18 to 30 questions.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation support the move, with Executive Director Mike Krause writing Alexander and Jones to let them know the form’s complexity and the “chilling effect of the verification process” is a barrier to “vulnerable” students trying to enter colleges and technical schools.

“The current structure and length of the FAFSA is a significant hurdle for Tennessee students enrolling in college,” Krause said in a statement. “The proposal released by Sen. Alexander is an important step toward making the financial aid process more accessible for students, especially those who may be the first in their family to attend college.”

More than 400,000 Tennessee students submitted FAFSA in 2018-19 to enroll in the Tennessee Promise, Tennessee Reconnect and financial programs such as the HOPE Access Grant, according to Krause.

Simplifying the application would enable the federal government and state “to better target” financial aid to the state’s neediest students, Krause said.

As part of the bill, a new and simpler Pell Grant formula would allow colleges to let students and families know much money they would be eligible to receive with the use of a table or a calculator.

The state would be able to continue using a needs analysis formula to award more than $400 million in financial aid “without disruption.”

Students and families also would be able to rely on tax information the federal government has on file, rather than being required to find additional information.

Pell Grant eligibility could be determined through adjusted gross income and household size, and unnecessary questions dealing with Selective Service and drug offenses would be eliminated, allowing students and parents to answer only questions related to family income, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

That group and the National College Access Network endorsed the legislation, saying thousands of students leave millions in financial aid money “on the table” each year, including $2.3 billion in Pell Grant dollars.

“By combining this simpler FAFSA with a Pell Grant look-up table, we can show students, early in their decision-making process, that there is money to help them complete college,” NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook said in a statement.