Blog: Federal Policy & Advocacy

NCAN Members Testify Before Senate Education Committee on FAFSA Simplification

Tuesday, March 12, 2019  
Posted by: Jack Porter, Advocacy Associate
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The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee highlighted issues with which NCAN and its members are unfortunately all too familiar in today’s hearing, "Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Simplifying the FAFSA and Reducing the Burden of Verification." This is the second time in as many years the committee has held a hearing on ways to make the financial aid application process less burdensome for students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds.

In his opening statement, HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) referenced the “chilling effect” the FAFSA’s complexity has on students and families, and cited the estimated one-third of East Tennessee State University applicants that are flagged for verification each year.

Two NCAN members and advocacy grantees served as witnesses during the hearing. They confirmed that the FAFSA does indeed hinder students from pursing higher education and provided policy proposals aimed at making the financial aid processes more efficient.

When asked by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) about these obstacles, Alabama Possible Executive Director Kristina Scott highlighted her organization’s direct service efforts and laid out a high-level vision for how to decrease the “pain points” students face when tackling the application.

“If we could reduce the number of questions, use plain English, have data sharing abilities with the IRS … all of that would communicate the message to students and parents that postsecondary education is a possibility, and there is help to pay for it,” said Scott.

College Now Greater Cleveland (CNGC) Chief Program Officer Dr. Michele Scott Taylor also served as a witness. CNGC currently serves 29,000 students and is Ohio’s largest college access provider. Dr. Taylor shared how her background as a first-generation, low-income student led her to pursue a career in higher education, and she went on to propose specific policy solutions that would have helped students like her.

“Congress can address issues related to the FAFSA and verification process, including … decreasing the number of data elements on the FAFSA, allowing FAFSA filers receiving federally means-tested benefits to also receive an auto zero EFC, and amending Internal Revenue Code 6103 to allow for direct data sharing between Departments of Treasury and Education,” she said.

Also testifying at today’s hearing were Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), and Iowa College Aid’s executive research officer, Dr. Mark Wiederspan. WSAC and Iowa College Aid – both of which are also NCAN members – recently released reports that quantify the impact financial aid inefficiencies have on students in their home states.

WSAC found that in 2018, almost 13,000 students missed out on more than $50 million in Pell Grants as a result of not completing the FAFSA. The report also lays out the top three reasons students do not complete the application: 1) It is too complicated, 2) they did not think they were eligible, and 3) they did not know financial aid was available.

During his testimony, Meotti described the web portal WSAC launched in an effort to increase Washington’s FAFSA completion rate. The tool provides high schools with a weekly updated list of students who have successfully completed the FAFSA. “We work very closely with them to not only try to increase the rate of filing, but also to try and get the error rate as low as possible,” he said.

Dr. Wiederspan of Iowa College Aid testified that in the 2017-18 academic year, 55 percent of Pell-eligible students in Iowa were flagged for verification. Remarking on the confusing nature of the process, he said, “Students selected for verification are many times unaware of their selection, or lack the knowledge to complete it.” He went on to note that even if students' financial information is successfully verified, their aid package may not arrive in time for students to cover their academic expenses.

Congress’ most recent effort to knock down the barriers discussed in today’s hearing came by way of the Faster Access to Federal Student Aid Act, or the FAFSA Act, which passed the Senate at the very end of 2018 but did not go anywhere in the House. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education announced meaningful policy change early this year that should decrease the burden verification can place on students.

While a comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act remains the most likely vehicle for FAFSA simplification legislation, NCAN will engage in any opportunity to serve our students in Washington.

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