Tri-Cities.com: Alexander proposes legislation to simplify financial aid application

Posted on September 30, 2014

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Students are faced with more than 100 questions when filling out a federal application for financial aid and they usually need extensive help and maybe even an instruction manual to complete it.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, thinks the process should be simpler and he visited Northeast State Community College Tuesday to discuss the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act.

The FAST Act would eliminate the FAFSA by reducing the 10-page application to two questions about family size and household income two years ago. Alexander said he would like to make it easier for students in Northeast Tennessee to attend college.

“The governor and the state legislature have already taken an important step for that by saying that tuition will be free,” he said, referring to Tennessee Promise.

Alexander said the current lengthy form may discourage students from applying for financial aid and may even discourage individuals from going to college at all.

The FAST Act would allow families to know much earlier what the federal government would provide in grants and loans by using earlier tax data and the creation of a reference table that high school juniors could use to see how much federal aid they are eligible for. It would also streamline the federal grant and loan programs by combining two federal grant programs into one Pell Grant program and reduce the six federal loan programs into three — undergraduate, graduate and parent, which would result in more access for more students.

“People all over the state are wasting their time and universities are wasting their time and money on this [FAFSA] and it’s unnecessary,” Alexander said.

The act would also restore year-round Pell Grant availability, would discourage over-borrowing by limiting the amount a student is able to borrow based on enrollment and would simplify repayment options to either an income-based plan or a 10-year repayment plan.

The legislation will be introduced in November, when the Senate reconvenes.

“There are about 2,700 applicants in the Tri-Cities area this year; over 440,000 in Tennessee, who will be applying for student aid, maybe more than that,” Alexander said. “The problem of discouraging students from going to college may affect as many as 3,000 students in Upper East Tennessee, maybe 40,000 students statewide, and two million nationally.”

He said those individuals would go to college if they could answer two questions instead of a complicated and lengthy application.

“Removing obstacles makes it easier for students who want to go to college,” he said.

Dr. Janice Gilliam, president of Northeast State; Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University; Dr. Bill Greer, president of Milligan College; two students, a parent and two counselors shared their views on the act during a round-table discussion.

Noland said he supports all six points of the act.

“If you look at the challenges that face our country, if you look at the challenges that face Tennessee, those challenges are directly related to the number of students who attend post secondary education, navigate that journey and ultimately walk across that stage and receive a degree,” he said. “The process of application is complicated, the process of moving through the FAFSA is complicated, but it is particularly complicated for first generation and low income students.”

Candace Gump, parent of two ETSU students, said she also supports the measure, especially that it would allow students to find out earlier how much financial aid they would receive.

“The timing of doing your college applications in the fall, your FAFSA in the early spring and then getting your award after that, it’s out of order,” she said. “It would be better if we knew prior to applying for college how much we had to spend.”

Whitney Singleton, with Bristol Tennessee’s school system and a school counselor for Tennessee Online Public School, believes that simplification of the federal aid application process would be a relief to her students.