NEW YORK (MainStreet) —This week as Republicans swept into power, Senator Lamar Alexander (R - Tenn.) said that his top priority would be to “simplify and deregulate” higher education in the course of renewing the Higher Education Act.
Alexander introduced legislation on Wednesday that would significantly reduce the length of the application for federal student aid and consolidate federal grant and loan programs. His plan, which he first rolled out last year, also calls for restoring year-round Pell Grants.
He also got behind a proposal introduced on Wednesday by Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, and Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, that would streamline federal student loan repayment plans. It also adopts limits on the amount of loan forgiveness that high-debt borrowers can receive, something the Obama administration has already proposed.
But the central focus in Alexander's Senate speech was the reform of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
“Senator Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) and I were at a Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pension) Committee meeting where we heard from four people, from different points of view, saying the same thing,” he said. “Instead of the current FAFSA’s 108 questions, we only need two questions to answer 95% of what we need to know.”
A stripped down FAFSA would be one of the things he said he would deliver in legislation he introduced called the Fast Act.
“The Fast Act will turn these 108 questions into two,” he said. “One will be about family income, the other will be about the size of the family. It will free students and their families from the dreaded FAFSA and eliminate thousands of hours of busy work by guidance counselors, college administrators, parents and accountants.”
The Fast Act is essentially a replay of the bill Senator Michael Bennet (D - Colo.) and he introduced last June when the Democrats controlled the Senate. Under one of its provisions, student and families would be informed earlier in the college application process about the grants and loans they can get from the federal government — and provide a look-up table would let high school juniors determine what they are eligible for. Another feature would allow them to use what insiders call the “prior prior year” tax information on their FAFSAs. They can use information on the tax returns their parents filed during their junior year rather than wait for information on returns that would be filed during their senior year, which might not be available at the time they apply.
Before the ink was dry on the Fast Act, concerns were raised that simplifying the FAFSA might be anything but simple.
“The risk of simplifying the FAFSA is that colleges will decide to create their own forms, yielding a net increase in complexity,” said Mark Kantrowitz, author of Filing the FAFSA and senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, a Website about planning and paying for college. “Colleges have used this argument to block previous attempts to simplify the FAFSA and to adopt prior-prior year (PPY). They seem more amenable to PPY now, but any kind of a compromise on FAFSA simplification would yield a form that is about as complicated as the current form.”
“Even Senator Alexander’s proposal is more complicated than he suggests,” Kantrowitz noted, “since it would still include federal mandates such as questions about drug convictions, whether the student is a foster child, Selective Service registration, U.S. citizenship, high school performance and the like.”
The upshot? Relief from FAFSA the data glut would not be forthcoming.
“Compromising with the state grant programs would require retaining questions about state residency and the highest education level of the student’s parents. That might fit on a page," Kantrowitz said. "But compromising with the colleges would require keeping six pages of questions.”
--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet