The Obama administration’s recently released budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year may soon make college more affordable and accessible for students nationwide.
On Feb. 2, President Barack Obama called for increased government spending on a range of higher education initiatives, including a proposal for two free years of community college and a bonus grant program that would reward colleges graduating large numbers of low-income students. But administrators and higher education experts interviewed said Yale students would be most affected by the proposed simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the adjustment of the maximum Pell Grant award in accordance with inflation.
Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said access to higher education is the first priority for college and university administrators nationwide. In that light, he said, all potential barriers are being examined and removed.
“This is part of a broader, national conversation about access and opportunity,” Storlazzi said. “There is no question that the application process for financial aid is time-consuming and exacting, requiring folks to become quickly conversant with IRS terminology regarding the components on income, et cetera.”
The FAFSA is a form that students fill out to determine their eligibility for financial assistance, such as Pell Grants, federal student loans and federal work-study.
Though the Obama administration has already taken steps toward making the form more accessible, the Department of Education estimates that roughly 2 million students who would have qualified for federal aid were unable to complete the application.
According to the budget proposal, 30 questions on the FAFSA would be cut, reducing the total number of questions to 78. The questions considered for deletion would be, as described by the Department of Education, the most “burdensome” and “difficult-to-verify,” and the simplified FAFSA would mainly rely on information available in federal tax returns.
Storlazzi said the University is similarly trying to simplify and add transparency to its own aid process by reviewing Yale’s presentation of its financial aid packages. Student Financial Services will be examining its website and print publications for consistency in terminology, he added. Although this is a local discussion, Storlazzi said, it is also part of a national conversation about financial aid and the terms that have been used in the profession for last 30-40 years.
“For example, in the term ‘Family Contribution,’ the word ‘contribution’ does not adequately and completely convey the notion that this a family ‘requirement,’” Storlazzi said. “And the word ‘requirement’ is probably not the right word either. While financial aid offices across the nation have been using the same terminology for many years, it may be time for a complete overhaul.”
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s proposed budget calls for certain adjustments to the Pell Grant, which may have profound effects on Yale students if approved by Congress.
Pell Grants are financial aid awards given to low-income undergraduate students by the federal government, which do not need to be repaid. The maximum Pell Grant award is currently $5,775 for the 2015-16 award year, and is scheduled to increase to $5,915 for 2016-17, according to the budget proposal. The award students receive is contingent upon their financial need, their university’s cost of attendance and status as a full-time or part-time student, according to the Department of Education website.
Based on the FAFSA, the Department of Education calculates an Expected Family Contribution amount for each student — the amount of money that a student’s family will be able to pay towards the student’s education. Currently, if a student’s EFC is greater than $5,081 for the 2013-14 academic year, a student is not eligible for a Pell Grant. Eliminating certain questions from the FAFSA about savings, untaxed income and other factors may reduce some students’ Pell Grant eligibility, so the proposed budget calls for the expected family contribution threshold for Pell to be reduced by $600.
According to Storlazzi, 688 Yale undergraduates — 13 percent of Yale College — received Pell grants in 2012-13, for a total of $2,828,233.
The Obama administration’s proposal calls for a $29.7 billion investment in Pell Grants to ensure that the grants can keep pace with inflation.
Michael Mitchell, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank, said pegging the Pell Grant to inflation would be especially beneficial to low and middle income students, as the cost of higher education continues to increase.
Barry Toiv, vice president of public affairs at the Association of American Universities, praised the budget’s continued support for federal research funding for departments like the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. However, in a statement published Feb. 2 responding to Obama’s 2016 budget, the AAU expressed concern over cuts in research funded by the Defense Department, much of which is conducted at universities.
“Defense basic research is critical to our national security,” the statement said. “For this nation’s fighting men and women to remain the world’s best equipped, most technically advanced force, we need to sustain the investment in Defense basic research.”
But Toiv added that the biggest issue facing Obama’s proposed budget lies in “sequestration” — cuts to the total amount of money allocated for the federal budget. Toiv said reducing the total amount of federal funding inevitably impacts funds allocated for higher education and research.
Tyler Blackmon ’16, a staff columnist for the News, said that through his volunteer work helping New Haven residents fill out their tax forms, the budget’s proposed simplification of the American Opportunity Tax Credit stood out to him. The AOTC is a credit for learning expenses for students in their first four years of higher education, and would be further extended through Obama’s budget proposal.
“The Obama administration has been very supportive of research funding and higher education, and so this budget is consistent with that support,” he said.
Over 50 percent of Yale undergraduates received financial aid in the 2014–15 school year.