What’s in a Bipartisan Pitch to Simplify the FAFSA

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a pitch to simplify the process of applying for federal student aid for higher education.

The proposal to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—known by one and all as the FAFSA—represents possible progress for those hoping that Congress will make it easier for K-12 students to make the transition to higher education.

The concept of making the form easier for students has been the subject of several proposals in recent years. Some form of simplification has been a particular focus for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who’s fond of displaying a lengthy FAFSA form as a visual prop to illustrate why it should be made easier for students and families to use.

However, Congress hasn’t actually pushed legislation to simplify the FAFSA over the finish line.

The pitch, in the form of an amendment to the House-passed FUTURE Act concerning funding for historically black colleges and universities and minority serving institutions, comes from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committtee; Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee’s top Democrat; Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.; Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.; and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. A statement from Alexander on Tuesday said that its changes would making applying for federal aid easier for 20 million families.

Here’s a quick, bulleted summary of what the amendment would do to the FAFSA, based on information from Alexander’s office:

Students would no longer have to give the same tax information to the federal government twice.
The agreement potentially would reduce the number of current questions on the form by up to 22 questions (there are currently 108 questions on the form).
It would eliminate a process that requires 5.5. million students to ensure the information they give to the Education Department and the IRS is exactly the same. The senators call this process of getting student aid a “bureaucratic nightmare.”
It would eliminate up to $6 billion each year in both overpayments and underpayments for Pell grants and student loans, according to the Education Department.
It would streamline the process of 7 million applicants seeking to verify that they don’t file taxes.
For more on recent FAFSA proposals from both the House and the Senate, click here.

Although the deal is bipartisan, it’s still unclear whether it can pass muster in the House. The FAFSA simplification proposal is part of a legislative package designed to make permanent $255 million in funding for historically black colleges and universities and minority serving institutions, and to simplify income-driven repayment for those who take out student loans.

But Democrats and Republicans have fought over the aid to HBCUs and MSIs, with Alexander for a time blocking short-term funding for HBCUs and MSIs and backing a package of permanent funding and other changes higher education policy changes instead, and Democrats pushing for a short-term extension of funding while holding out hopes for a bigger higher education package. The new proposal resolves those prior differences around HBCU and MSI funding.

Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., holds the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, during an interview on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2014. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta).