By Libby Quaid -- AP Education Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration plans to simplify the federal college aid form, which at 153 questions drives millions of families to give up before they finish it.
President Barack Obama wants to make the form much more user-friendly as part of a sweeping plan to put higher education within reach of more students.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who planned to announce the changes on Wednesday afternoon at the White House, said the goal is to boost college enrollment among low- and middle-income students.
"We have to educate our way to a better economy," Duncan said in a statement.
The new form will reduce the burden on the millions of students and families who apply for federal financial aid every year, Duncan said.
The change comes as demand for aid is rising. After the recession began last year, the number of applications rose by 12 percent to more than 16 million, according to the Education Department. Detailed estimates are not yet available for last year, but of all college undergraduates in 2007, 58 percent applied for aid, and 47 percent received it.
Students and their families must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to get any type of federal aid or loan. The form also is used for state and college aid programs.
The administration is taking three steps to simplify the form, which some consider more complicated than a tax return:
—Shorten and streamline the online application, reducing the number of screens by about two-thirds.
—Create a Web application to use tax data families have already submitted to the IRS, helping to eliminate confusion in answering questions.
—Ask Congress to pass legislation that removes more than half of the financial questions on the form.
Legislative changes will make the biggest difference, said Terry Hartle, a lobbyist for the American Council on Education, the leading higher education group in Washington.
The proposal drew a warm response from one of the lawmakers who will help decide its fate. California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the changes make common sense.
"Confusing paperwork shouldn't stand between qualified students and a college degree," Miller said in a statement.
But congressional approval won't be automatic. The new college aid form likely will become part of a larger student aid bill centered on Obama's controversial plan to end a massive program of government-subsidized college loans.
That program provides about $5 billion a year in subsidies to private banks, and Obama needs the money to pay for his massive expansion of federal aid. Obama wants to increase the Pell Grant program for low-income students by 75 percent over the next decade. Lenders are gearing up for a fight over the program.
On its own, the student aid form is not contentious. Everybody wants to simplify it, and the administration's changes are reasonable, Hartle said.
"It will make a big difference to millions of people who fill out this extremely complicated form, but this is, by no stretch of the imagination, a radical set of changes," Hartle said.
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