Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Alexander: Time to Simplify the FAFSA

Posted on November 28, 2017

Nearly four years ago, at a hearing before this committee, an unusual thing happened: four witnesses from diverse backgrounds agreed that almost all the 108 questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, are unnecessary.

The FAFSA is the government form 20 million families fill out every year in order to qualify for the $140 billion in federal aid that helps nearly 20 million students attend 6,000 colleges and universities. 

At the end of hearing, I asked the witnesses if they could summarize their proposals to simplify the FAFSA in four separate letters to us. They said   they could do it together in one letter. 

Senator Bennet and I then had the same reaction. 

If there is that much consensus on how to make it easier for nearly 20 million families to apply for federal aid, we asked, why don’t we actually do it?

So, Senator Bennet and I set about to turn 108 questions into two, on a postcard that Dr. Scott-Clayton, who is also here today, recommended in her testimony four years ago.

Let’s take a moment to talk about why simplifying this form is important:

First, nearly 20 million students fill out this form every year. This means if you receive a federal grant or a loan as a freshman, you have to fill it out again to continue to receive aid for your sophomore year and beyond. 

While experienced financial aid officers tell us it does not take long to complete, we have heard over and over again from parents, students, and higher education officials how difficult it is the first time. 

Second, this complexity frustrates the goal of the Pell Grant, which is to help low-income students attend college, because it discourages them from applying for aid. 

I know in Tennessee, where two years of post-secondary education is now free, the complexity of the FAFSA is the single biggest impediment to more students taking advantage of Tennessee Promise.

The former president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis told me he believes that he loses 1,500 students each semester because of the complexity of the form.

Third, this complexity wastes time and money that could be better spent helping students choose the right college or major, or develop financial literacy skills so they can understand the impacts of taking out student loans. 

After four years of discussion over how to simplify the FAFSA, it is time to come to a result.

Our first order of business after the first of the year will be to mark up a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

My central focus will be to make it simpler and easier for students to apply for federal aid and to pay their loans back, and to cut through the jungle of red tape that federal law and regulations imposes so college administrations can spend their time and money instead for the benefit of students.

After our hearing four years ago, Senator Bennet and I, along, with Senators Burr, Isakson, King and Booker, introduced our legislation to cut the 108 FAFSA questions down to two questions.

We have listened to students, financial aid officers, and college presidents. We have done this in a bipartisan way for four years.

We will hear about some of those good ideas today.

For example, Senator Murray has a bill to simplify the FAFSA process for homeless students and students without parents.

We worked with the Obama Administration to allow students to fill out the FAFSA with their tax information from two years before they enroll in college, instead of one, so they could file in the fall, rather than having to wait until spring.

The result of all this is that Senator Bennet and I are now completing work on a bill that would reduce the FAFSA from 108 questions to as few as 15 and no more than 25 questions, depending on how you answer questions about your family. 

We will do this principally by taking the tax information that Americans give to the federal government and incorporating that tax information into the FAFSA.

Over and over again, across Tennessee, I have been asked, if I have already given my tax information to the federal government, why do I have to give it again for the FAFSA?

My answer is that you shouldn’t have to. Once is enough.

Our proposal will also tell students the amount of their Pell Grant, money they do not have to pay back, before they apply to colleges instead of after they have already been accepted to schools.

I have a long perspective on this – as Education Secretary, I oversaw the implementation of the first FAFSA, in January 1, 1993, shortly before I left office.

While the FAFSA is a complex form today, it was actually created then to reduce the burden on students by combining federal, state and institution based financial aid applications into one single application.

That first FAFSA had four pages of questions and 12 pages of directions.

Today’s FAFSA is 10 pages, with directions included on the form, plus an additional 66 pages of instructions.

Now, 25 years later, I sit here as Chairman of the Senate Education Committee trying to update the HEA and once again simplify how students apply for federal financial aid.

Over the next couple of months, I want us to listen to the experts, discuss different proposals, and write and pass a final bill.

25 years after the first FAFSA and four years after the first hearing, it is time to bring this discussion to a result.

We should be able to say to the nearly 20 million families who fill out the FAFSA, instead of answering 108 questions, you will only have to answer about 15-25. Once is enough to give your basic information about family size and income to the federal government. And instead of waiting until you’ve been admitted to college, we’ll tell you about your Pell Grant while you’re still shopping around for schools.