Washington Examiner: Here is one bipartisan way to make college more affordable

Posted on October 29, 2019

With well over 100 questions, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, is almost as long and stressful as the SAT. This is a problem: It shouldn’t be harder to pay for college than it is to get admitted. 

Last week, Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Doug Jones of Alabama announced their plan to relieve families of this stress. Their bipartisan bill aims to significantly streamline the process of receiving federal grants and loans. The bill presents a rare opportunity for both parties to come together and increase accessibility to higher education. 

FAFSA is a Department of Education program that provides over $100 billion in grants and loans annually to 13 million students demonstrating financial need. This program is particularly helpful today, as the average cost of a four-year college education is well over $100,000 and tuition has risen eight times faster than wages since 1989. This means that for many students FAFSA is the only reason they can afford to go to college. 

Despite it playing such a crucial role in affordability, only 44% of high school seniors complete the FAFSA prior to graduating. As a result, up to $24 billion in financial aid is left unclaimed each year. In a time where the average personal student loan debt is over $37,000, American students cannot afford to miss out on this aid.

The National College Access Network foundthat low-income students are more likely not to complete a FAFSA than their peers. The disproportionate effect on low-income students is particularly concerning as they stand to gain the most from the program. Not only does FAFSA make higher education more affordable for the disadvantaged, but it also serves as an encouragement to attend college. 

The average student is 84% more likely to attend college if they complete a FAFSA, but the poorest fifth of students are 127% more likely if they complete one. The students who could benefit the most from FAFSA are being dissuaded from doing so. 

Why do so many students fail to complete a FAFSA? 

Inside Higher Ed reports that many of the students who did not complete a FAFSA were either confused about or resentful toward the complex form. This comes as little surprise, considering that the FAFSA is 108 questions long, with many more sub-questions. 

The form is long enough that Sen. Alexander was able to dramatically unravel it while presenting on the Senate floor. Students are not completely out of luck, however: The Department of Education has produced a 62-page guide for answering some of the tougher questions. Hooray for simplicity!

The length and complexity of the FAFSA serve as unnecessary barriers to affordable education. Alexander and Jones seek to break those barriers with their bill: It aims to shorten FAFSA to between 18 and 30 basic questions. 

This approach not only sounds good on paper, but it has also proven effective in experimentation. The National College Access Network created and tested their version of streamlined FAFSAs between 20 and 25 questions long. The test showed that many more students would complete a form if there were fewer and simpler questions. The streamlined form also resulted in 56% fewer errors, making the process better for both students and administrators. 

Legislators on both sides of the aisle should join Alexander and Jones to take this opportunity to enact broadly-appealing student aid reform.