Report calls for federal aid reform



A key advisory committee to Congress has called for a sweeping overhaul of federal student financial aid policy that would substantially streamline the aid application process and increase the affordability of college for students from low-income families across the nation.

Citing a complicated federal-aid application process and unfair expected family contributions as significant problems faced by students, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance issued a road map to Congress and the Department of Education that it said would make aid easier for students to attain.

The committee’s report, released to the public on Tuesday and titled “The Student Aid Gauntlet: Making Access to College Simple and Certain,” is a response to lawmakers who asked the committee for recommendations to improve federal aid programs before they reauthorize the Higher Education Act later this year.

Among the committee’s 10 recommendations are to make a simplified version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for students from families with incomes of less than $25,000 and to increase the amount of students’ income that is protected from scrutiny when the government analyzes it to determine their financial need for college.

Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw said he thinks the committee’s proposals are “very positive” but said he expects an uphill battle in Congress to pass these changes, which would require additional federal funding.

“I think applying for financial aid is daunting, particularly for first-generation kids who have no experience in completing what would be considered ‘bureaucratic’ forms,” Shaw said. “Anything that could simplify it would be considered positive.”

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns about the costs of the recommendations requiring increased funding. Alexa Marrero, a spokesperson for the Republican majority of the House Education and Workforce Committee, called a number of the proposals “promising” but said she was concerned about the costs of the proposals and the availability of federal funding to finance them.

“Just a couple of the recommendations add up to more than a billion [dollars],” Marrero said. “Clearly there are some pretty costly proposals here and that’s why it’s important we look at this seriously and give it consideration and have all the information we need to do that.”

But U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democratic member of the House Education and Workforce Committee from Ohio, said the costs of implementing the proposals are worthwhile.

“If we’re going to give tax cuts to millionaires, no one asks what that costs,” Ryan said in an interview Tuesday. “But if we want a few dollars to streamline the financial-aid system then all of a sudden cost is an issue — it’s amazing.”

In its report, the committee suggested that Congress make the process of filling out the FAFSA easier to understand by eliminating what the report said were irrelevant questions and using clearer language. The committee also recommended switching entirely to an electronic version of the FAFSA and phasing out the paper form of the FAFSA over the next five years.

But the committee recommended maintaining a simplified paper version of the FAFSA designed specifically for low-income students. Currently, students from families earning less than $15,000 can apply for aid on a simplified FAFSA, but the committee suggested expanding this income bracket to include students from families earning less than $25,000.

Yale Director of Financial Aid Myra Smith said she liked the idea of completely streamlining the FAFSA online.

“Making the FAFSA entirely electronic is a good idea, as long as the government ensures that all students and parents have easy access to computers,” Smith said in an e-mail.

Ryan said he welcomed the report’s recommendations.

“We think it’s important because there are so many young people that need financial assistance, and this is just one barrier that doesn’t need to be there,” Ryan said. “There are already so many barriers, and the bureaucratic system shouldn’t be one of them.”

In its report, the committee also recommended allowing students to apply for financial aid earlier than the current Jan. 1 start date and providing more information to students about the aid process early in their middle- and high-school careers.

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