Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called for the financial aid system to be reformed to increase effectiveness when his committee held its second hearing in Congress on Thursday on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which consists of two grant programs, five loan programs and nine repayment plans.
“The federal financial aid system is so complex that even those in the higher education system can have trouble navigating it,” Alexander said. “At a roundtable at the University of Tennessee-Martin, a Tennessee college president told me it took him months to figure out how to help his daughter pay off her federal student loans in full, even with the money in hand.”
Since reauthorizing the Higher Education Act four and a half years ago, his committee has held 18 hearings, which Alexander said produced a large number of mostly bipartisan proposals, including simplifying student aid and improving the accreditation system.
Alexander said making the financial aid system simpler could make the process streamlined “so that it is not a barrier to college for the very students the aid is intended to help.” He said officials at Southwest Community College in Memphis recently told him they lose 1,500 students each semester because of the complexity of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA.
“The consensus that I see emerging is student-focused: Simpler, more effective regulations to make it easier for students to pay for college and to pay back their loans; reducing red tape so administrators can spend more time and money on students; making sure a degree is worth the time and money students spend to earn it; and helping colleges keep students safe on campus,” Alexander said.
“As a result of our hearings, we have figured out we can drastically shorten the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, from 108 questions to 15-25 questions, using information the government already has,” Alexander added. “This will be a welcome relief for the nearly 20 million students that complete the FAFSA each year.”
Stripping down the process would make the job of university financial aid departments easier, according to Catherine Morgan, East Tennessee State University’s director of student financial aid. Though she said the process is simpler than it was 15 years ago, she agrees with Alexander and other lawmakers’ proposals.
She said the process can still often be confusing for first-generation college students.
“Moving forward, I think it has gotten easier, but we’re always going to have students with questions,” she said. “I think anything we could do to streamline the process would be beneficial not only to students but financial aid officers as well.”
Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, agreed with Alexander and school officials on the issue. In an emailed statement to the Johnson City Press, he said this was part of the goal when he supported the PROSPER Act, which passed in the House Education and the Workforce Committee in December to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Still, he too said more could be done to make the process more streamlined for prospective students.
“I share Senator Alexander’s interest in a simpler, more effective student loan process. The process of applying for, and receiving, student aid is a complicated one that can be overwhelming even to those who have assistance,” Roe said. “I am glad to see higher education reform high on the Senate’s agenda as well, and will continue working with Senator Alexander on these shared goals.”