The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing last Thursday on simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a long-time proponent of simplification, devoted the last scheduled hearing of the HELP committee before he leaves office to a proposal that would reduce the number of questions asked on form students have to fill out to get federal financial aid for college from 108 to 33, reported Inside Higher Ed.
Sen. Alexander, as he has done for years, stood at the hearing and held out the long application, Inside Higher Ed reported. The current application, he said deters many students from getting the aid they need to go to college, and simplifying it is important amid the COVID-19 outbreak, when students are questioning the value of college.
"Twenty million students and their families are in the middle of what is likely the strangest first semester of college in a century," he said. "Almost everything has changed for students, except for one thing—students still have to answer 108 questions on the dreaded FAFSA form."
Alexander's measure would also replace the Education Department's lengthy verification process by only asking on the aid form financial questions that appear on IRS forms. The tax information would then be used to verify the information on the FAFSA.
Last year, Congress passed a smaller FAFSA simplification measure as part of a bill to reauthorize funding for historically black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions. The legislation allows the IRS to more seamlessly share students' taxpayer data with the Education Department, helping students to more easily apply for federal financial aid and enroll in income-based loan repayment programs.
However, the broader push to streamline the number of questions on the FAFSA has been caught up as part of the debate over a larger reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP committee, previously insisted that she would only support simplifying the application as part of HEA reauthorization, but did not repeat the demand at the hearing, Inside Higher Ed reported.
She said instead, "The pandemic has had a profound impact on families across the country. FAFSA must be a tool to expand access to education, not a barrier. Students who need our help the most are facing the biggest burden in getting financial aid. We need to do everything we can to make their lives easier."
A spokeswoman for Murray did not immediately respond to Inside Higher Ed's question of whether the senator would support simplifying the application without it being tied to other issues.
U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Hearing
Inside Higher Ed