The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Thursday outlined how Congress could seek to further simplify the FAFSA while still providing institutions of higher education with the data they need to determine aid, during a largely bipartisan hearing at a time when agreement across the aisle is becoming less common.
The hearing comes toward the end of the session for the 116th Congress and follows up on the panel’s most recent effort to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), which followed bipartisan discussions on FAFSA simplification. The effort to complete a full reauthorization of HEA will not come to fruition this session and future prospects of overhauling the law — which could serve as a vehicle to simplify the FAFSA — remain unclear.
The committee heard from five expert witnesses, who each highlighted the obstacles that the excessive questions pose for students and families, especially in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, emphasized how simplification would benefit students with unique family circumstances, such as those in which the student is supported by grandparents or other guardians, or families with varying forms of employment.
“I would love to see a FAFSA that not only simply and equitably helps us distribute Pell, but also contains enough information to eliminate any need for supplemental forms,” Feldman said. “As simple as we make the FAFSA, we also need to ensure it makes sense for all families, including those in non-traditional situations.”
Witnesses also touted the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act, which was signed into law in December and allows for direct data sharing between the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Education (ED).
“I hope, once we truly implement the FUTURE Act and simplify the process of applying for aid, we in the aid offices can spend less time on helping families with the forms, following up on errors, and verifying information using IRS tax forms,” Feldman said. “Instead, I hope we can have more time to counsel families on the types of supports available, help students facing emergencies, address special circumstances and financial literacy, and support students not only with access – but to completion – success.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of this session, remarked how he for years has been carrying around a physical copy of the FAFSA as a prop to demonstrate the need for simplification. Now, in light of the pandemic, the issue has become all the more pressing.
“Twenty million students and their families are in the middle of what has to be the strangest first semester of college in at least a century,” Alexander said in his opening remarks. “Almost everything has changed for students — except for one thing — students still have to answer 108 questions on the dreaded FAFSA form.”
All senators present for questioning agreed to the need of simplifying the FAFSA, making it a possibility for Congress to consider some sort of simplification effort before the end of the session.
“I hope we can pass bipartisan legislation to do so by the end of this year,” Alexander said.
NASFAA’s written testimony urged the committee to ensure that changes made in the name of simplification do not do more harm than good for students and also do not result in states or institutions having to create supplemental financial aid applications to collect additional information. By relying on timing and technology already in place, NASFAA said, Congress can enact meaningful, commonsense changes that will dramatically reduce the number of FAFSA questions for all applicants, but most importantly, for low-income students.
“In order to strengthen the FAFSA for those who need it the most, we will need to work to balance the tension between simplification and accuracy and be willing to accept that there might be some imperfection in pursuit of balancing these goals,” NASFAA’s testimony said. “Simplifying the FAFSA is not a panacea for the larger issues of college access and affordability but creating an application form and process that are succinct, easy, and predictable is a crucial piece of the overall puzzle.”
NASFAA also recently commissioned a 10-paper series exploring ways to make the FAFSA — and the overall federal student aid process — more efficient and streamlined for applicants and their families. Using funding provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation NASFAA updated its 2015 FAFSA simplification proposal and enlisted other subject-matter experts to both assess the current validity of previous work done on FAFSA efficiency and explore new simplification concepts.
While Congress has nearly completed its legislative session ahead of the 2020 presidential election, lawmakers are still working through additional coronavirus aid — with bipartisan negotiations at a standstill — and will shortly enter a lame duck session. During that transition period, a number of salient proposals could be taken up and considered in short order before the chambers adjourn and usher in new members in 2021, though a comprehensive HEA rewrite would be too much of an undertaking for such a short period of time.
“Some activity could maybe happen then,” said Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at NASFAA. “I think it would be unrealistic that we would see a comprehensive HEA bill go through. But piecemealing something together is not out of the question.”
During the hearing, Alexander conceded the point that HEA would not get an overhaul this session and said he is instead seeking to complete work on FAFSA simplification so its implementation could coincide with the FUTURE Act.
“It would make much more sense and be much easier if we could pass this bill, removing the 53 additional questions and let both the FUTURE Act and this legislation be implemented at the same time,” Alexander said.
According to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, this was the final education-related hearing that the committee would oversee for this session.
“Everyone has really benefited from your expertise and your experience,” Murray said of Alexander’s leadership. “We all owe you a debt of gratitude and really appreciate all your work.”
Publication Date: 9/18/2020