NEW YORK (MainStreet) In the run-up to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the 49-year-old law that defines federal spending on post-secondary education, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate education committee, tabled legislation last month that re-invents the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is the gateway to virtually all aid to college studentsprivate and federal.
The FAST Act, co-sponsored by Senate Democrat Michael Bennett of Colorado, would replace the ten page, 130-question FAFSA with a post card-sized document that asks two questions: 1) what is your family size, and 2) what was your household income two years ago.
The current FAFSA, Alexander said, is too complicated and a waste of borrower and taxpayer resources. Education experts say that the complexity of the current FAFSA is a significant barrier for getting more low-income and first-generation students to apply to and enroll in college.
However, there's not much new here which may not augur well for those seeking a FAFSA overhaul. Congress has been down this road before and didn't get very far.
Mark Kantrowitz, for example, author of Filing the FAFSA, first proposed fitting the FAFSA on the back of a postcard in his recommendations for reauthorizing the HEA in 2002. He also notes that they tried to do this during the most recent reauthorization six years ago.
"The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 added a requirement that the US Department of Education create an EZ FAFSA form for students who qualify for the simplified needs test," he said. "Unfortunately, the Department just integrated this into the FAFSA on the Web through the skip logic process." Skip logic is a survey process that uses an applicant's answers in the beginning of a survey to determine the questions they will be asked later.
"While that reduces the length of the form by skipping redundant questions and the IRS Data Retrieval Tool helps, it doesn't do enough," he said.
Kantrowitz calls for using the formula currently in place for the federal IBR, or income based repayment plans.
"My proposal argues that if the formula used in the IBR is sufficient to determine ability to pay after graduation, then a similar formula should be sufficient to determine ability to pay during college," he said. "The only tweak I made was to divide the figures by the number of children in college." A family's cash flow will likely remain the same whether they have one student in college or four.
Some colleges have said that they're concerned about making the FAFSA too simpleespecially when they rely on it to calculate aid awards coming from their own institutions.
Cynthia Littlefield, vice president for federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, told Inside Higher Education last month that there should be a way to reduce what would essentially be low-value information collected by the FAFSA. But, she said, many institutions use the more complex FAFSA questions to allocating their own institutional aid dollars.
Demands for that data would continue. This could lead to what would in essence be a college-specific FAFSA that would exist alongside a Federal counterpart.
"We would probably have to look at the concept of putting new forms together so that they would have enough information to make those decisions," Littlefield said.
Indeed, there are dueling student aid application forms used by private colleges. "The College Scholarship Service /Financial Aid PROFILE form asks even more questions than the FAFSA," said Kantrowitz.
Administered by the College Board, the CSS is required by many private colleges in determining eligibility for an institution's own grants and loans. Among the results, he said, are "shifting the focus from helping low income students to preventing high-income students from looking like they are poor" in the student aid allocation sweepstakes.
--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet