A bicameral group of lawmakers recently introduced a pair of bills in the House and Senate intended to help ease the process of applying for federal financial aid for students who do not have contact with their parents.
The bill, the FAFSA Fairness Act of 2018, was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD). The bill would allow students who do not have contact with their parents to submit their FAFSA applications with a "provisionally independent" status, essentially applying for a dependency override. The institutions would then be able to calculate and deliver provisional aid packages to the students.
"We want all students to have an opportunity to achieve their dream of a higher education," Cardin said in a statement. "Students with difficult personal and financial circumstances should have the same chance as their peers to make informed financial decisions and comparison shop for the highest quality, yet most affordable, option for college available to them."
Cummings said in a statement that students who have escaped abusive homes or have incarcerated parents, for example, could stand to benefit.
These students, he said, "should have the same opportunities as their classmates who have not faced these obstacles. Instead, these students frequently abandon their goal of attending college because of the often long and complicated process of applying for student aid. This bill will help prevent our financial aid process from continuing to be an unintended barrier to higher education."
After the bill's release, some in the financial aid community expressed concern online, saying that while the bill has good intentions, it could cause some unintended consequences.
My concern...students to whom none of this applies exploit or misunderstand it, slows things down even more. Some will say "my parents won't help me, so this is for me."— David Sheridan (@SheridanFinAid) March 23, 2018
This bill has good intentions, but could lead to much more confusion. Mistaken students outnumber legitimate d/o cases and these students will feel misled by their institutions when prelim aid gets reduced. #fachat— Rachel M. (@notaboomerang) March 23, 2018
Some institutions also told NASFAA that while they appreciated the goal of relieving the burden of going through a dependency override for students—particularly those applying to multiple schools—they were concerned about a potential "bait and switch" perception. If a student was ultimately not approved for the dependency override, for example, the institution may have to revise and presumably reduce the student’s aid package. The timing of aid package revision could also be problematic, they said, if a student has already committed to attend an institution or has already started classes.
Some institutions also worried that students might not understand under which circumstances they would qualify for a dependency override, and wondered whether more students would be completing the FAFSA without parental information.
The bills come at a time when lawmakers continue to look for ways to simplify and streamline the process for applying for federal student aid. Generally, the idea of FAFSA simplification has been one of few that has garnered bipartisan support.
"Financial difficulties should never prevent a student from getting a good education. Yet for many young people, the financial aid process is unnecessarily confusing and burdensome," Van Hollen said in a statement. "This legislation would simplify the process and help students make informed decisions about their academic careers. I hope we can act on this common-sense proposal without delay."
Publication Date: 4/2/2018