Simplifying in Stages

Obama administration to roll out plan today for minimizing the federal financial aid form, making some changes now and asking Congress to change law to use IRS data.
June 24, 2009

WASHINGTON -- As consensus has built around the need to simplify the federal financial aid form (and the recognition that that is just part of the answer to really simplifying the financial aid process), proposals for doing so have ranged widely, from shrinking the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance significantly to eliminating it outright.

Simplifying the aid process has been a central plank of President Obama's aggressive agenda to increase college going and completion, and on Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will lay out the administration's plan for doing so in his first appearance before the White House press corps.

A preview of the plan shared with reporters Tuesday suggests that the administration will (as it seems to be doing on many fronts these days) take a moderate path, undertaking significant but not revolutionary changes, and doing so in stages.

Under the proposal, the Education Department would make some changes in the next six months, using better technology on the popular Web-based form to allow independent students to skip over a set of questions about their parents' finances that don't apply to them, for instance, and, come January, letting students from low-income families skirt questions about their financial assets, which don't affect the aid available for such students.

The second prong of the administration's plan will be to ask Congress to alter federal law to strike all questions related to assets from the FAFSA entirely and to let families use information from their tax forms to answer many remaining questions. It was unclear from the early information about the administration's proposal if it would ask lawmakers to allocate Pell Grants based on aid applicants' adjusted gross income instead of the government's current, complicated "needs analysis" formula.

If Congress backs the administration's plan, that would clear the way, department officials said, for having 18 key financial questions on the form answered by data from the IRS, leaving families to answer basic personal information on the form.

More details may be available later today when the department fully briefs reporters, but initial reactions from financial aid experts were enthusiastic.

"The administration's proposals for simplifying the application process for federal student aid are very exciting," said Sandy Baum, an economist at Skidmore College who co-chaired a College Board-convened panel on "Rethinking Student Aid." "The immediate changes, which allow applicants to skip questions that are not relevant to them, will make the process faster and less confusing for many students and families. The incorporation of IRS data into the process represents a huge leap forward. The Rethinking Student Aid Study Group proposed eliminating all financial questions from the FAFSA and relying entirely on IRS data. In order for that to happen, the legislation the Administration is proposing will have to pass Congress and IRS data will have to be available for applicants throughout the year.

"This first step is, however, very impressive," Baum added. "People have been saying for years that the IRS just can't or won't do this. But that has now been proven wrong."

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in a prepared statement that college officials would be likely to have "many questions" about the implications of the administration's plans. "Despite the complexity of the policy discussion in the coming days, however," she said, "there can be no doubt that simplifying the FAFSA as the department has proposed will be of tremendous benefit to thousands of students and their families."

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