Bipartisan Senate Hearing Finds Agreement on Need to #FixFAFSA
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Posted by: Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy
At yesterday’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Examining Proposals to Simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA),” there was easy agreement among the senators and witnesses that the FAFSA is complicated and simplification is necessary to help more students access financial aid. This agreement led to a detailed conversation about exactly what should be done about FAFSA simplification.
NCAN offered our thoughts on the hearing topic through a written statement that Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) offered into the record.
Here are some of the themes that emerged at the hearing:
- FAFSA on a Postcard/App: The FAFSA should be short and easy to access. Given this week's concurrent announcements by U.S. Education Department officials at the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Training Conference, this should be an easy win. However, a shorter form would make apps much more user-friendly.
- Determining Pell Eligibility Separately from Other Aid: Several witnesses advocated for determining Pell eligibility separately from other aid eligibility, so the Pell eligibility process could be more straightforward. A simple phone app or look-up table were suggested to help students understand as early as middle school their likely eligibility for a Pell Grant. NCAN supports simplifying the aid application process in a way that helps students easily understand their aid eligibility years before applying for college, but would not support creating two federal forms or processes.
- Three Factors to Determine Pell Eligibility: There was discussion around simplifying the Pell eligibility formula to only use three factors: adjusted gross income, family size, and number of dependents in the family. Which definition of “dependent” – the one used by the IRS or the one used by FSA – was not made clear. However, there were several references to transferring all three data elements from the IRS. The IRS definition of dependent is less generous than the current FSA definition, but it is also much easier to understand.
- Universality of a Federal Process: There was broad agreement that whatever path is taken to simplify the FAFSA, it must work for states and institutions to avoid a return to a patchwork of application forms where students must complete a federal form, a state form, and multiple institutional forms.
- Verification Must Be Addressed: Several witnesses and senators spoke clearly about the barriers of the verification process. In particular, it was clear that students cannot access aid without completing this process, which hinders their ability to continually pursue their education.
- Homeless and Unaccompanied Populations: A homeless advocate and former homeless student, Elaine Genise Williams, testified powerfully about the barriers for homeless and unaccompanied youth to completing the FAFSA, particularly with verification. She added that for students no longer in high school, proving homelessness or a similar status can be challenging. That's because paperwork from a high school deeming a student homeless, at-risk, or unaccompanied may not be accepted for a young adult filing the FAFSA.