Over twenty million people fill out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) annually, but senators say that many give up because it is too complicated, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
“Almost everything has changed for students this year except one thing,” said Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, (R-TN). “Students still have to answer 108 questions on the dreaded FAFSA form.”
The FAFSA enables students to access the Pell grant and other local and institutional need-based aid.
“Students just need more money,” said to the committee Rachelle Feldman, director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Students need higher Pell grants and students need higher a threshold for Pell grants.”
The proposed FAFSA Simplification Act would reduce the total questions from 108 to 33 questions, end the Department of Education’s financial data verification process by using data provided by the IRS, create a Pell Grant eligibility formula so that middle and high school students know how much Pell Grant money they have to go to college, and enable an additional 1.6 million students to qualify to receive the maximum Pell Grant award each year.
According to Kim Cook, Executive Director of National College Attainment Network the cumbersome process deters students from filling the application.
“The high school class of 2018 left almost $2.6 million of unclaimed Pell money due to not completing FAFSA,” she said to the committee.
Last year, Senate passed the FUTURE Act which reduced the FAFSA by 22 questions, by granting permission to the Department of Education to access data that had already been submitted to the IRS.
The FAFSA form is the main pathway to getting financial aid, but committee members say it is still a complicated process, which has only become worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s no joke,” said Alexander. “Especially this year, many students are questioning their investment at a time when many classes are only offering online courses.”
Alexander, a Republican, has been working across party lines with Democratic senator Doug Jones (D-AL) on the legislation, which according to them is even more eminently needed under current circumstances.
“The Senate needs to get to work negotiating a COVID relief package to make sure colleges can deliver quality education for their students,” said committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA), “and to implement public health protocols and provide emergency financial aid to students who are struggling.”
With many institutions moving to teach in the online environment, new challenges that create new costs have appeared.
One of the main challenges for students is affording the technology they now need to participate in classes.
According to Feldman, many students are in “broadband deserts” and there needs to be extra funding so that they can afford access to the internet.
Bridget Terry Long, dean and professor of education and economics at Harvard Graduate School of Education said to the committee that government needs to bolster funds in times like this one when savings depletion and job losses have resulted from the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, the FAFSA is just one more baffling frustration for students and families to navigate,” said to the committee Judith Scott-Clayton, associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University. “So much of their energy is consumed just trying to survive.”
“In the past spring we saw submission for the FAFSA fall,” said Long, “Since students lost access to teachers, counselors, and resources.”
Some of the groups most affected are Black and Hispanic students who might be eligible for the Pell grant and don’t get it because of a lack of guidance, said to the committee Kristin Hultquist a founding partner at HCM Strategists.
People in minority groups are also more likely to experience loan default, failing to pay back their debt under the terms of their initial arrangement.
“A Black college student with a bachelor’s degree,” said Scott-Clayton, “is more likely to experience a default in their loan than a white college dropout.”
The legislation also proposed eliminating question 23 from the current questionnaire which ultimately prevents students with prior drug offense convictions from receiving aid.
Committee member Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) says that even though simplification would be helpful, she is a proponent of more bold measures like canceling student debt altogether.
“Instead of making it easier for students to borrow more money,” said Warren, “we ought to focus on how to deal with the $1.6 trillion in student debt that is crushing millions of people.”
Warren along with Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.), introduced a plan on Sept. 17 that calls on the president to take executive action to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student debt for every borrower in the country, which would eliminate student debt obligations for more than 30 million Americans who owe them.
“FAFSA simplification still matters because college access still matters,” said Scott-Clayton. “And perhaps now so more than ever.”