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Senate Committee Advocates FAFSA Reforms

Sen. Lamar Alexander plans to once again push his colleagues in Congress to simplify the FAFSA process as part of the Higher Education Act reauthorization.

In December 2018, the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan Faster Access to Federal Student Aid Act under unanimous consent. The legislation would have required the Internal Revenue Service to share information with the U.S. Department of Education to make the process of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid easier, but the legislation wasn't taken up in the House. Now, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is renewing his efforts to reform the FAFSA as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

"There are not many things U.S. senators can do to cause 20 million American families to say, 'Thank you,'" Alexander said during a March 15 hearing in the Senate education committee. "After five years of bipartisan work, we are ready to do just that: the FAFSA is simpler and on mobile devices, and Congress is now ready to take the final step to make it easier for those families to apply for federal financial aid and to eliminate $6 billion annually of mistakes that are unfair to taxpayers."

To educate lawmakers, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee heard testimony from Alabama Possible, the Washington Student Achievement Council, Iowa College Aid and College Now Cleveland on how the FAFSA should be reformed.

"FAFSA continues to be a barrier to post-secondary attainment. Most people get help filing their taxes from something like HR Block or using Turbo Tax," said Kristina Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible. "One of my questions is do we need to build a similar system for FAFSA completion or would our limited private resources be better spent supporting student success."

Mark Wiederspan, executive research officer of the Iowa College Aid, talked about how the verification process for FAFSA can be cumbersome, especially for low-income students. "Through my research I have found that verification is targeting individuals who need financial aid the most," said Wiederspan. "For the 2017-2018 academic year in Iowa, roughly 55 percent of Pell-eligible students were selected for verification compared to 6 percent of non-Pell-eligible students."

To make the process easier for the FAFSA and verification, Wiederspan recommends creating and supporting more of a data transfer between ED and the IRS through the Data Retrieval Tool transfer, expanding the use of the DRT transfer to allow institutions and individuals to use the DRT regardless of their tax filing status, and working with states to determine which FAFSA non-financial elements are needed to determine state aid eligibility.

In Washington, the Washington Student Achievement Council has created a web-based FAFSA portal to help school staff members assist students in filling out the application and determining if students need to correct information. The campaign has resulted in partner schools reporting FAFSA completion rates at 10 percent points higher than non-participating schools.

In a statement for the record, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member of the HELP Committee, expressed her support for reforming the FAFSA process. 

"We're asking our students to jump through hoops to provide the same financial information over and over again and this immense burden is resulting in students leaving money on the table," said Murray in written remarks. "When students can't complete the overly complicated process of verification — referred to as the 'verification melt' — they often drop out altogether."

Murray also expressed her support for reforming the process for low-income students to receive aid altogether. "If we are serious about connecting students to Pell Grants — we must also be serious about connecting them to other benefits and truly making college affordable through this reauthorization," she said.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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