Knoxville News Sentinel Op-Ed: Lamar Alexander: Reduce questions to apply for Pell Grants

Posted on January 15, 2015

There is nothing like a visit from the president of the United States to shine the spotlight on a really good idea. Gov. Bill Haslam's really good idea was to make Tennessee the first state to say to every high school graduate: Two years of community college or technical education are yours, tuition-free.

For the last 30 years, Tennessee's greatest need has been for better-trained workers to fill the jobs created by companies attracted to our business-friendly, centrally located state. Community colleges and technical institutes are our secret weapon for this kind of training, and too many Tennesseans don't take advantage of them.

When the governor — and now the president — say that two years of advanced education are not only free but important, people listen.

Last year, I held roundtable discussions at four of our two-year institutions and learned that applications for admission have doubled or tripled. The reason, obviously, is Tennessee Promise. But I also learned that there's a major obstacle to more students taking advantage of Tennessee Promise, and it's not more money — it's federal paperwork.

The paperwork comes as part of the deal with Tennessee Promise. Every participant must first apply for a federal Pell Grant, which can cover tuition and fees up to $5,700 a year. Pell Grants can make tuition free for students before they even get into Tennessee Promise. In fact, more than half of Tennessee community college students, including 47 percent of students at Pellissippi State Community College, have a Pell Grant. Tennessee Pell recipients receive, on average, $3,268 in federal student aid per year. Tuition and fees at Pellissippi are $3,660. What the governor and the Legislature did was say to Tennessee students: We'll make up the difference — on average about $500 a year.

The trouble is with the application for Pell grants. It's 108 questions. The paper version of this dreaded FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) stretches taller than I am. Experts tell us that its complexity discourages an estimated 2 million students from applying each year. At Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis alone, the complexity of this form discourages 1,500 students each semester from attending, the school's president told me.

So here's another really good idea: Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and I introduced a bill this week to simplify the FAFSA by cutting it from 108 questions to two. Experts tell us that two questions about family size and income are really the only ones we need.

As governor in 1983, I saw what happened when President Ronald Reagan came to Knoxville's Farragut High School to encourage our Legislature to pass our Master Teacher Program. Tennessee became the first in the country to pay teachers more for teaching well. Other states began to emulate what Tennessee was pioneering.

Already other states are calling Haslam asking how they can emulate Tennessee Promise. After the president's visit, there will be more calls. One caution: Reagan did not propose that the federal government mandate and fund Master Teacher Programs. He believed states could figure that out themselves.

So let other states emulate Tennessee's really good idea. And then let's reduce the federal paperwork that is the major obstacle to the success of Tennessee Promise.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is a Republican representing Tennessee.