FAFSA Disaster? Alexander's assessments analyzed, expanded

Nathan Baker • May 13, 2014 at 9:37 AM

To demonstrate the clumsy growth of federal regulations and their effect on the education system, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander unfurled an impressive visual aid Saturday before East Tennessee State University’s commencement ceremony.

In front of television cameras and scribbling pens, the senator dropped a seven-foot-long copy of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and held one end high above his head.

“It intimidates a lot of students, discourages them from going to college, and it wastes a lot of time and money that could be spent on educating students,” Alexander, the country’s former Education Secretary, told reporters. “My goal as U.S. senator is to reduce this form to two questions: One would be ‘How many members are in your family?’ and ‘How much money did your family make last year?’ Think of all the productivity that would encourage.”

The FAFSA was added to the country’s Higher Education Act in 1992 under President George H.W. Bush. Since then, it has provided current and upcoming college students with a free method to apply for available federal and state grants, but some now believe it has become overgrown and needs an enthusiastic pruning.

Like Alexander, Margaret Miller, ETSU’s Director of Financial Aid, believes the application has become overly complicated, but she said reducing it to only two questions may be oversimplification.

“I certainly, after 30 years of watching the process, would support simplifying the process,” Miller said Monday. “Sen. Alexander’s proposal would be good place to start, but to simplify that much — I don’t think the federal government would ever be satisfied with making anything that simple.”

This year’s FAFSA contained 108 questions, about as many as the standard 1040 Individual Income Tax Return form when including the fields for names and other identifying information.

Thirty-five of those questions are to be filled out by the student’s parents to determine family income, and some of the questions are conditional, meaning they can be skipped if certain criteria are met on other questions.

Four pages of instructions are included with the FAFSA, and a 72-page supplemental guide “Completing the FAFSA” is optional. By comparison, the instruction book for the 1040 tax form is 207 pages long.

On Alexander’s larger-than-life-size form, Miller said it’s not the usual method for applying. To save printing costs, the federal government stopped widely distributing paper copies to schools in 2007 and now relies mainly on online applications.

Alexander and Miller both said the arduous application process can dissuade students from applying for college, especially students who are the first in their family to attend a higher education institution, those who likely need financial aid the most.

Miller said the senator’s proposed questions are a good foundation for determining eligibility for aid, but said other questions should cover untaxed income and how many students a family is currently supporting in college.

“We hate it, but we have to do it because it’s a federal law,” she said. “Maybe they could check a certain number of FAFSAs as they come through to make sure No. 1, that the info is given honestly, and No. 2, that there’s not something about the process that is a detriment to students.”

A spokesperson for Alexander reached Monday said the senator’s legislation is “in the works.”

In February, Washington media reported the formation of a task force including Alexander and Sens. Michael Bennet, Barbara Mikulski and Richard Burr, members who intend to simplify and deregulate higher education in the upcoming renewal of the Higher Education Act.

Alexander, seeking re-election this year, said Saturday if Republicans take control of the Senate in the upcoming mid-term Congressional elections, he will be the chairman of the Education Committee, and the streamlined education law will have an easy passage.

Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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