Chattanooga Times Free Press: Sen. Alexander wants to shorten 10-page college aid FAFSA form to two-question postcard

Posted on November 24, 2014

Dianne Cox knows people who'd rather do their income taxes than fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a 108-question form that needs to be filed annually for college students to get most kinds of financial aid.

So Cox, the director of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's financial aid office, likes the push by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to whittle the 10-page FAFSA down to a postcard-size form with only two questions: What is your family size? What was your household income two years ago?

"It's become so complex and over-regulated that starting over might not be a bad idea," Cox said.

Alexander is in line to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions when Republicans take over the Senate in January. The Nov. 4 elections gave Republicans control of the U.S. Senate for the first time during Barack Obama's presidency. The GOP already controlled the House.

Alexander said that, despite partisan differences, shrinking the FAFSA is an issue that both parties can get behind.

"I think the chances are very good that we can reduce the 108-question FAFSA, the dreaded FAFSA, to a few questions -- instead of 108," Alexander said Thursday in a telephone interview.

Alexander said he and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., are working together to reform the FAFSA. In June, they released a draft bill to replace it with the two-question version they've dubbed the "Student Aid Short Form."

The duo's proposed legislation also would let high school juniors learn their eligibility for federal aid, instead of making them wait until their senior year. And the bill would allow year-round use of Pell grants, discourage over-borrowing and simplify repayments, the senators say.

Alexander said FAFSA reform is timely in Tennessee partly because of Gov. Bill Haslam's Tennessee Promise, a new program that guarantees high school seniors two years of tuition-free community college or technical school.

"At most of the community colleges around the state, applications have doubled or tripled," Alexander said.

But people who have volunteered to serve as Tennessee Promise mentors may get bogged down helping students fill out the FAFSA, Alexander said.

Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee and two-term governor, said that 440,000 Tennessee families fill out the FAFSA annually. Yet the form is so daunting, he said, that it discourages some from even attending college.

While the senators' goal is reducing the FAFSA to two questions, he said, it may turn out that a few more questions are needed.

"Hopefully, the end result will be a lot closer to two than the 108 questions," Alexander said.

Getting more Hamilton County kids into college also is a goal of the Public Education Foundation.

Filling out the FAFSA isn't fun, said Dan Challener, president of the Chattanooga nonprofit organization.

"I went to college, I'm in this field -- it's really hard for me," Challener said.