Senate HELP Committee Kicks Off Reauthorization Hearings With FAFSA Simplification, Verification

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Tuesday once again renewed its efforts to work toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) by holding the first of several planned hearings, focusing on simplifying the FAFSA and reducing verification burden.

The committee heard from four expert witnesses during the hearing: Kristina Scott of Alabama Possible, Michael Meotti of the Washington Student Achievement Council, Mark Wiederspan of the Iowa College Student Aid Commission, and Michelle Scott Taylor of College Now Cleveland. FAFSA simplification broadly has been an area of bipartisan agreement for the most part, although Republicans and Democrats have at times disagreed over how exactly to go about changing the federal student aid application process.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the committee, several years ago famously suggested creating a “postcard FAFSA” consisting of just two questions: family size and income. He retreated slightly from that stance on Tuesday, saying that after discussing the issue with stakeholders, “we realized we needed to keep some questions or states and schools would have to create their own additional forms that students would need to fill out.” He said he’s now confident that the committee can pass legislation to reduce the number of questions to between 15 and 25.

“Bipartisan discussions have produced a lot of agreement on simplifying the number of questions, so the purpose of this hearing is to learn what we need to know before taking the final step,” Alexander said. “There are other steps this Committee is considering to make college worth students’ time and money, but we also have the opportunity to greatly simplify the ‘chilling effect’ applying for federal aid has on students today.”

Alexander went on to say simplification can bring change in several ways: reducing the number of FAFSA questions, decreasing the number of students selected for verification through data sharing between the IRS and the Department of Education (ED), encourage more students to apply for aid by simplifying the application, making the FAFSA mobile-accessible (which ED has already done), allowing families to apply for aid sooner (due to the use of prior-prior year income data), allowing students to find out about their Pell Grant eligibility as early as eighth grade, and saving as much as $6 billion annually by reducing improper payments.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who stepped in for Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) as ranking member, said in her opening remarks that the committee must also take a holistic look at the issues with college affordability.

“While I agree we must do more to remove barriers that discourage students from seeking and receiving financial support for which they qualify under current law, doing so is only one step in making higher education more accessible and affordable,” she said. “I believe we must also commit to strengthening and expanding our federal financial aid programs in order to help students in need afford the true costs of college and earn a higher education without taking on suffocating debt.”

NASFAA submitted written testimony ahead of the hearing, urging lawmakers to keep in mind the three basic tenets behind the philosophy of federal student aid: the student and family responsibility to pay for college, the availability of need-based aid for those without the ability to pay, and the use of an application to determine the total amount of aid.

As lawmakers work to simplify the FAFSA, they must also keep in mind the need to “accurately measure the financial strength of applicants to ensure need-based grants are well targeted,” the statement said.

“Put more simply, the real challenge is to put together an application that is as simple as possible yet allows us to distinguish the truly needy from those who are not,” the statement said. “Ultimately, it is this tension that causes most debates within the application simplification discussion, and historically, trying to balance these two objectives has meant tradeoffs between simplification and accuracy.”

In 2015, NASFAA’s FAFSA Simplification Working Group developed a proposal for a three-level application process that would sort students and families and direct them down one of three potential pathways based on their predicted financial strength, and recommended expanding the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to include all line items of the 1040 and W-2 forms, to allow for the inclusion of other types of income, making the process more accurate.

A better solution, NASFAA argued, would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Faster Access to Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Act of 2018 to allow for cross-agency data sharing.

“We believe the authorizing of direct data-sharing between ED and the IRS, as found in the FAFSA Act, is the lynchpin to any future simplification effort,” the statement said. “If we do not utilize and strengthen existing technology, a great opportunity will be missed.”

NASFAA’s three-level proposal, taken together with the FAFSA Act, could have a meaningful impact on reducing the need for verification, the statement said.

The witnesses who testified at the hearing generally agreed that the number of questions on the FAFSA can be reduced and that the federal government can leverage technology and data-sharing capabilities to reduce burden on families. Scott, for example, said Congress should consider an “expedited process” in awarding Pell Grants to students whose families received means-tested federal benefits.

Leveraging data sharing by enhancing the IRS DRT could also help alleviate the burden of verification, Wiederspan said. Exchanging more information between the two agencies, can help reduce the need for income verification. He also suggested reinstating the 30 percent verification cap to reduce the burden for institutions with a high percentage of Pell-eligible students.

The witnesses also referenced a need to contribute more to federal need- and campus-based aid programs, such as the Pell Grant, Federal Work-Study, and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs. Meotti said that in order for states to achieve ambitious college completion goals, they must “overcome many obstacles that stand in the way of access and success to higher education,” and are often the most severe for low-income families, students of color, first-generation students, and adult learners.

“Too often, the higher education debate focuses on tuition and fees that are the nominal price tag for college. The cost of going to college is much more than that. College takes time. For most Americans, that is time taken away from their ability to contribute to their household’s basic needs for a place to live, food, transportation and more,” he said. “We will not significantly increase educational success without understanding and meeting those essential needs. Both states and the federal government need bold solutions and new investments to put college within reach for working families.”

 

Publication Date: 3/13/2019


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