Alexander Pledges to Simplify “Dreaded” FAFSA, “the No. 1 Obstacle” to Students Applying for Tennessee Promise

Posted on November 9, 2015

During visit to Chattanooga State, calls Tennessee Promise a “major success and example for states to follow,” commends Chattanooga mentors for rising to Gov. Haslam’s challenge 

CHATTANOOGA, Nov. 9 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today told students and administrators gathered at Chattanooga State Community College that the “number one obstacle” to students applying for Tennessee Promise is the “dreaded FAFSA,” which the senator pledged to simplify. Alexander said his bipartisan legislation, the FAST Act, would simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form that 430,000 Tennesseans fill out each year to be eligible to receive federal grants or loans. More than 2,200 Hamilton Co. families of graduating high school seniors filled out the form this past spring and summer.

The first class of Tennessee Promise students began classes in August, with as many as 18,000 students taking advantage of the free tuition program. The deadline for the 2016 school year was Nov. 2. Governor Haslam has said that many prospective students are discouraged from the program by the FAFSA form. There still may be as many as 40,000 Tennessee families who are eligible for federal aid who are not filing the form.

Alexander said Chattanoogans “stepped up” to Gov. Haslam’s challenge and their volunteer efforts led to a surplus of mentors helping Chattanooga students through the financial aid process. “Hamilton County should be proud and I commend you all for stepping up to Gov. Haslam’s challenge. It was estimated that the county would need 338 mentors for the class of 2016—and 366 stepped up to the challenge,” Alexander said.

“Despite the team of Tennessee Promise mentors and school guidance counselors who worked hard to help students fill out this form to take advantage of the Tennessee Promise and federal student aid, nearly 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors were so intimidated by this form that they didn’t apply,” Alexander said at the roundtable. Alexander said the form is too complicated and that experts told the Senate education committee that its 108 questions could be cut down to only two.

Alexander was joined at the roundtable by Chattanooga State Community College President Dr. Flora Tydings and Tennessee Achieves (tnAchieves) Executive Director Krissy DeAlejandro, who highlighted the success of Tennessee Promise, as well as several students and mentors who emphasized the difficulty of filling out the FAFSA.

Alexander’s remarks, as prepared, follow:

“Today we are here highlighting the benefits of the Tennessee Promise Program through the voices of the participants. I support this program and am pleased that Governor Haslam was successful in putting this trailblazing program in place. 

“This is how it should be done – by states, addressing their unique needs and situations and harnessing current resources to their advantage.

“The president and many of my Democratic colleagues think other governors are unable to prioritize important education initiatives without federal legislators mandating them to do it from the federal level.”

“As a former governor, I know that just isn’t true. And I’m proud to have a governor like Bill Haslam, who isn’t about to wait for us in Washington to tell him how to make a difference.

“The Senate education committee is in the middle of the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. We have held eight hearings this year and I hope we will have legislation ready for debate by the end of the year.

“One of my priorities in that process will be a bipartisan bill that I introduced with Senator Bennet (CO) along with Senators Booker (NJ), King (ME), Burr (NC) and Isakson (GA) called the FAST Act.

“The FAST Act would do the following six things:

1.     It would simplify the dreaded application for federal student aid that 20 million families fill out each year.

2.     It would allow students to use their Pell Grants year-round, so they can study at their own pace.

3.     It would also allow families to apply for Pell grants in their junior year of high school and to use their income figure from the previous year. That way, they would know what their award was well before they were admitted to college. (And also, by using income from the previous year, they wouldn’t be digging around looking for tax information before they’d even filed their taxes for the year, which is the way the FAFSA requirements today work.)

4.     Fourth, we want to simplify the number of grants and loans.

5.     We’d like to discourage over-borrowing by changing some rules that exist by permitting colleges to do more counseling of students and changing the rule that allows a part-time student to borrow a full-time amount of money.

6.     And finally, we’d like to simplify the payment plans. Today, things are really complicated for students – too many repayment plans to wade through and find what’s right for them.

“I’d like to talk about how two of these items can be of most benefit to those participating in the first classes of Tennessee Promise. And, how they can benefit future generations of Tennesseans in getting aid for college.

“First, I’m going to talk about simplifying the FAFSA, as well as simplifying the student loan program.

“This is the FAFSA. Most of you know very well what this looks like.

“It’s what 430,000 Tennesseans fill out each year to receive federal financial aid.

“Just this spring and summer, 2,212 families of graduating seniors in Hamilton county completed this form.

“It’s 108 questions and it is a giant obstacle to more Tennesseans attending college because it is so intimidating. Especially to families that have never sent a child to college before.

“And because every single Tennessee promise applicant has to first fill out the FAFSA, Tennessee high school seniors were No. 1 in the country this year for the increase in the percentage of students who fill out the student aid form.

“However, we know that there will still be about 39 percent of high school seniors who don’t fill it out. In this area, that is a lost opportunity for about 1,400 high school graduates for aid to go to college in Hamilton County alone.

“One mentor with the Tennessee Promise program, a woman named Cathy Hammon, said the form has a ‘chilling effect’ – intimidating parents who may themselves never have attended college, and have no experience navigating the process.

“Currently, the FAFSA deadline is such that pretty much every Tennessean applying for Tennessee Promise has to complete the FAFSA before they complete their tax returns but some of that information is necessary for completing the FAFSA.

“So a family has to scramble to estimate their taxes or file their taxes before filling out the form.

“Relying on the family’s previous year’s tax information that has already been filed will allow the FAFSA to be completed easier.

“That will allow the federal government to inform the student of how much federal aid they will receive at the beginning of their college search.

“You all know that the deadline to sign up for the Tennessee Promise was just last week and one of the next requirements for the program is to complete the FAFSA.

“President Obama recently announced that he was going to use authority that Congress granted him in the last reauthorization to implement this exact policy and I applaud him for that.

“By next year, prospective students will be able to fill out the FAFSA much earlier in the process, and students and mentors will be able to work on pick the right school or area of study and getting ready for a successful freshman year.

“I plan to make the option of using the previous year’s tax information in the FAFSA permanently available to families.

“There are many more issues we are working through in this Higher Education reauthorization:

“We are looking at the jungle of red tape of government regulation on institutions of higher education.

“This piling up of regulations is one of the greatest obstacles to innovation and has resulted in the federal government becoming a cost driver in higher education.

“We are looking at the role of accreditors, and whether there are things Congress can do to improve the accreditation process.

“We are looking at giving colleges some share in the risk of lending to students, so that they have an incentive to help students from overborrowing and also keep tuition from increasing too fast.

“We also recently held a hearing on all the data that colleges and universities are required to collect and all the disclosures they are required to make. We want to be sure that those requirements make sense and aren’t just a waste of everyone’s time because no one uses the information. Students may need different information.

“So I look forward to hearing your thoughts how I can help me help more Tennesseans go to college to meet Governor Haslam’s goal of achieving 55 percent of Tennesseans have a degree or certificate by 2025 or on any and all of these issues.”

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