Members of Congress Introduce Legislation to Simplify FAFSA Form - Higher Education
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Members of Congress Introduce Legislation to Simplify FAFSA Form

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Democrats on the Committee on Education and the Workforce recently introduced new legislation that would simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

On Thursday, Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester D-Del., introduced the Simple FAFSA Act of 2017 that will amend the Higher Education Act, removing barriers for students seeking financial aid by simplifying the FAFSA application process. Legislative changes include requiring the FAFSA to be filed only one time, providing the FAFSA in multiple languages and creating a standardized financial aid award letter.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware.

The bill is co-led by Ranking Member Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Va., Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., and Delegate Gregorio Sablan, I-Northern Mariana Islands.

“For many students, obtaining a college education or post-graduate certification is their ticket to a fulfilling career and a good paying job, but for students seeking federal financial aid, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) imposes burdensome requirements that too often create a barrier to entry for federal grants and loans, not a window of opportunity,” said Rochester, adding that it “takes a good government approach in bringing students closer to the financial aid programs available to them. . .”

While the FAFSA is universally accessible and free, only 61 percent of high school graduates in the class of 2017 completed the FAFSA. This left billions of dollars – including approximately $2.3 billion in Federal Pell Grants – unused during the 2017-2018 academic year.

“Whether you are a first-generation college student or come from a family that’s fallen on hard financial times, it is our duty as lawmakers to ensure that it is easier for you to access the programs that are available to you, and that’s exactly what this bill does,” the Congresswoman added.

For students who did complete the FAFSA and received a Pell Grant for their first year of college, roughly 10 percent did not re-file the next year although there is a likelihood that they remained eligible, the lawmakers say.

The new legislation offers solutions to previous financial aid barriers and attempts to help students and their families who may find the FAFSA application process to be too complex or confusing to complete.

To start, the new legislation will require U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to provide the FAFSA in at least 11 foreign languages spoken by English learner students and their parents. Moreover, the section requires that the FAFSA be available in a format accessible to students with disabilities.

In an effort to streamline the application process for students unfamiliar with the FAFSA, the lawmakers’ bill simply allows students to spend less time working on their FAFSA applications altogether. One provision reduces the number of questions on the form by placing a student on one of three pathways depending on the student or their parent’s finances.

The first pathway, for example, is for very low-income applicants who benefited from a means-tested federal benefit program in the last two years. Such applicants will have an automatic zero estimated family contribution (EFC), and they will receive the maximum Pell Grant award after verification from other related government agencies.

Another section permits applicants to use income data from the previous year’s tax return on the FAFSA. And low-income students who are dependent Pell Grant recipients will be given the opportunity to file the FAFSA only once before going to college, a move that will allow them to worry less about annually re-filing the form.

The bill will also enhance support for working students by offering a 35 percent increase to the income protection allowance (IPA). By reducing the “work penalty,” the bill allows working students to shield their income for basic living expenses and offsets deductions to their federal aid.

If passed, the new legislation will also open federal financial aid to DREAMers, giving eligible students access to Pell Grants necessary to further their education, a win for college-access advocates. An additional amendment – reinstating Pell Grant eligibility to students with drug-related offenses – will eliminate drug questions on the FAFSA because they disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color, the lawmakers say.

The last component of the bill requires all higher education institutions receiving Title IV funding to use and provide a standardized financial aid award letter developed by the Education Department. Students using the “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet” will then be able to clearly compare financial aid packages offered by institutions where they are admitted.

Insight for this year’s FAFSA legislation comes with help from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and the National College Access Network (NCAN).

Megan McClean Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at NASFAA, said that her organization developed a similar proposal to this year’s Simple FASFA Act back in 2015. She said that she welcomed the opportunity to work with the Congress members to find a “common-sense approach” to FAFSA simplification using existing technology to make the form more efficient and accessible for low-income students, Coval said.

“While the Department of Education has made important strides in FAFSA simplification in the past…the process can still be daunting and lengthy for low-income students,” she said. “Provisions that allow the consideration of other means-tested benefits and the expansion of the [IRS Data Retrieval Tool] will allow for our lowest-income students to experience a straightforward, simple and accurate process.”

Scott said that passage of the Simple FAFSA Act will increase college enrollment and completion as data shows that students who complete the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to attend college than students who do not.

“The Simple FASFA Act is another component of our Aim Higher initiative which is focused on providing all students with access to a meaningful degree that costs less money and leads to a good-paying job,” he said. “This bill contributes to this goal by making the application process for federal student aid easier, fairer and more effective for working families.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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