Margaret Spellings and her staff clearly haven't started packing up their offices just yet.
In a speech tonight at Harvard University, the U.S. education secretary will unveil a proposal to greatly simplify the process by which students apply for federal financial aid. Under the plan, which flows from a set of ideas floated by Under Secretary Sara Martinez Tucker at an Education Department summit in July, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid would shrink from more than 100 questions to 26, and students would find out before their senior year of high school how much federal financial aid they would qualify for.
"This all flies under the rubric of needing to make this process much much less burdensome," Spellings said in an interview in her office Monday. "Right now, it's like we're trying to keep people out of college, not get them in.... The whole thing is, 'You want to go to college? Here are seven pages of bureaucracy, and here's what you're going to have to do to get it.' As opposed to, 'Here's a simple way to do it, and here's what we're going to do for you, so you can get it.' It's the whole psychology."
Just about everybody is in favor of simplifying the federal financial aid system and the process by which students apply for financial help, in the belief that complexity deters and often defeats students -- especially those from low-income families, who are likeliest to be dependent on financial aid to make it to college at all.
Student advocacy groups have urged the government to shrink the size of the form; researchers have undertaken studies aimed at helping families navigate the process; the Republican and Democratic Party platforms both embraced the idea; a College Board-sponsored panel's sweeping plan to rethink the entire student aid system would move in much the same direction as Spellings's; and the recently enacted renewal of the Higher Education Act directed the Education Department to craft a plan to simplify the federal aid form, among other simplification efforts.
Despite that widespread concurrence, the financial aid process has gotten more complicated, not less so, over the years. (Spellings notes, with some irony, that even as the Higher Education Act renewal directed her to try to simplify the form, Congress, in passing the legislation, "was adding 6-7 questions to the form.... Like a lot of policy, this grows up over time, and by the time decades pass, you end up like this.")
Spellings has gotten significant mileage out of the FAFSA, as the federal financial aid application is known; she has taken to traveling with it as a prop and comparing it unfavorably to federal tax returns in complexity and intimidation factor. Under the plan she will unveil in her speech at Harvard's Institute of Politics this evening, the form would be cut to 27 from its current 102 questions.
The remaining questions would focus on demographic information, and would give the government enough information to calculate each aid applicant's adjusted gross family income and family size, which would form the basis for the federal analysis of the student's financial aid needs. The calculation would be based on the tax information that is available at the time, which in most cases would be the year prior to the one that is typically used now.
"We think that, based on adjusted income and family size, we'll have what we need to tell families what they'll have available" from the federal government, David S. Dunn, Spellings's chief of staff, said in an interview Tuesday.
The department's goal, Spellings said in Inside Higher Ed's interview with her Monday, would be to inform students much earlier in the process -- ideally before the start of their senior year in high school -- how much federal financial aid they would receive, rather than to tell them well into their senior year how much they will be expected to pay.
"We're trying to turn it on its head," Spellings said. "We want students to feel empowered by the resources they have, and then apply them to the school of their choice. It's 'How much do you get?,' not 'How much are you expected to give?' "
Spellings said she was hopeful, given the widespread agreement on the principle of simplifying the student aid process and system, that her department's plan would gain support. But "it's the consummate devil's in the details type thing," she said. The initial proposal Tucker laid out a few weeks ago would have cut the FAFSA to 9 questions, instead of the 27 in Spellings's plan, and members of Congress are certainly going to have their own ideas about how the process should change.
"I have full respect for what it's going to take to get this done," she said. "I'm just hoping that Congress gives it careful consideration."