Chattanooga Times Free Press: Sen. Alexander aims to make education more accessible

Posted on November 10, 2015

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander wants to make it easier for Tennesseans to get free tuition for community or technical college by reducing the number of questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.

"We want to make sure that we have enough questions so that we don't waste taxpayers' money, but that we don't have so many questions that we discourage the very people that we're hoping will go to college," Alexander said.

The Tennessee Republican spoke before showing the 108-question federal student aid application that extended like a scroll from his shoulder to the ground.

Alexander hosted a roundtable discussion at Chattanooga State Community College to hear from students and administrators about their experiences with the FAFSA form and to hear how the application process can be improved. He is working to reauthorize the Higher Education Act to simplify the student aid process.

Tennessee leads the nation in tuition-free post-secondary education at community colleges and technical institutes.

Having free tuition allows people to get the training they need to get jobs and earn more money, Alexander said.

In 2014, about 60,000 high school seniors applied for Tennessee Promise, the program that provides two years of free tuition to any high school graduate in the state who attends community college or technical school. But only a third of those enrolled in college this fall, he said.

Some roundtable participants said the problem was the lengthy funding application.

"It is documents like the FAFSA that will prevent students from continuing the path to Chattanooga State because it feels as if we're asking too much," said Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director at tnAchieves, the nonprofit group upon which Tennessee Promise is modeled.

Alexander said he wants the application to be closer to two questions than 108.

Matthew Peeney, who participated in the discussion, said the application can be a challenge even to parents with college degrees.

"It was a little overwhelming for me," Peeney said. "My father is a CPA, so he knew his way around, but it was definitely something we devoted the weekend to do."

However, student Alexis Bonanno said the long list of questions ensures no one cheats the system.

"If there were fewer questions, I know that people where I am from would take advantage of that and they're going to lie to get more money," she said.

Pell Grants, which are the basis for the Tennessee Promise program, use about $35 billion in taxpayer dollars every year, Alexander said.

"So we want to make sure that money goes to the right people," he said. "We want to make sure that there is not any fraud."

DeAlejandro also advised the senator to simplify the jargon on the application. She said jargon is a major barrier.

"What is a FAFSA? What's an EFC (expected family contribution)? All these words we take for granted in higher ed, but students are very unaware of what that means."

Chattanooga State President Flora Tydings advised Alexander to allow colleges to dole out the money for the students' education instead of giving the student the entire check for tuition.

She said some students take the money, but don't complete school, she noted.