The Tennessean: Op-Ed by Sen. Alexander: Change FAFSA form, eliminate college barrier

Posted on February 27, 2015

Now that Tennessee Promise guarantees every Tennessee high school graduate two years of tuition-free community college, the main obstacle standing between a Tennessee high school graduate and two years of free higher education is a ridiculously complex federal form.

A solution, introduced by a bipartisan group of United States senators, would reduce the application to only what is necessary — as few as two questions.

The FAFSA — Free Application for Federal Student Aid — is a 108-question form that about 440,000 Tennessee families fill out every year to obtain a federal grant or loan for college.

Tennessee Promise pays for whatever a federal loan won’t cover, so every participant must fill out the federal form.

The president of Southwest Tennessee Community College says he loses 1,500 students each semester because they’re too intimidated by the form.

As many as 2 million students nationwide are discouraged from applying for aid because of the form — including as many 40,000 Tennesseans every year.

Adding thousands of qualified students to the number of community college graduates would go a long way toward helping Gov. Bill Haslam realize Drive to 55 — the drive to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a degree or certificate beyond high school by 2025.

Fortunately, there is a way to help the governor, as well as the 20 million college students seeking federal grants or loans for college.

Six senators — myself and Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Angus King (I-Maine), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — have a plan, called the Fast Act, to reduce the form to two questions: One, what is your family size? And, two, what is your family income?

On his visit to Knoxville, President Obama endorsed our proposal, and his budget this year began the job by recommending removing roughly 30 questions from the form.

Our idea came from testimony before our committee two years ago, when every one of four witnesses agreed that the government could eliminate all the FAFSA questions except for two and get about 95 percent of the information it needs to decide award amounts.

Dramatically simplifying the form would not only encourage millions more to go to college each year, it would save families countless hours wasted on an unnecessarily complex form. It would also transform the work of guidance counselors and admissions officers — including the volunteer mentors Gov. Haslam has been recruiting to guide Tennessee Promise applicants — who today spend much of their time helping students navigate the FAFSA, rather than on college and career counseling.

One Tennessee Promise mentor, Cathy Hammon of Alcoa, says the form can have a “chilling effect” — intimidating parents who may themselves never have attended college and have no experience navigating the process: “It’s the very youth we worry about the most that struggle with it.”

Our bill will allow students to find out how much financial aid they’ll receive shortly after applying, so they’ll know before shopping for a school.

A new report on federal higher education regulations that Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos helped lead says that the simple act of basing federal aid on household income from the previous year’s tax return, as our bill would, would greatly simplify the application process.

Today families are applying for federal aid while they are also in the process of filing their tax returns, timing that can lead to errors.

Government regulations tend to pile up, as everyone likes to add new ideas but few are willing to weed the garden. The result is 108 questions on a federal form that really needs only two.

Our proposal will fix this — and will help Gov. Haslam and young Tennesseans reach the impressive goals they have set for themselves.

Lamar Alexander, R-Knoxville, represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. He chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.