Congressional education leaders are hopeful about reaching a deal in the coming days to simplify applying for student aid, a major priority for Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, who is retiring shortly after the new year.
Aides to the House and Senate education committees from both parties have been trying to reach a deal and appear to be close. Still unsettled is what Democratic priorities could be attached to a deal. One possibility, though far from certain on Friday afternoon, would be to allow more prisoners to use Pell Grants than are currently permitted to do so.
Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations, said his impression is that key Senate and House education staff are “negotiating furiously.”
It’s also uncertain if any deal would be part of a massive budget deal being negotiated to keep the federal government operating past Dec. 11, which would also include additional COVID-19 relief funding.
Should the sides reach agreement, it would be a major win for Alexander as he retires on Jan. 3. The Republican from Tennessee, and former president of the University of Tennessee, has been pushing to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for years, oftentimes displaying the long, scroll-like form with 108 questions. He mentioned the issue in his farewell speech on the Senate floor last Wednesday as one of the things he “cared most about” and one of the “footprints” he wanted to leave behind.
Though the final deal hadn’t been finalized, a bill sponsored by Alexander and Doug Jones, the Democratic senator from Alabama, would reduce the number of questions on the form to 33, and many of the answers would be automatically filled from tax filings.
It would also change eligibility for Pell Grants so that it would take into account the size of student’s families in examining their income. Alexander’s office has said the change would lead to 1.6 million more students being able to receive the maximum grant under the program.
Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the education committee, had been holding off on supporting the change hoping to use it as leverage in negotiations over a broader reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the nation’s main law governing colleges and universities. But with time having run out to strike a deal over a broad rewrite, Democrats appear willing to go along with giving Alexander a legislative version of a gold watch before his retirement, in exchange for smaller changes.
"The pandemic has had a profound impact on families across the country. FAFSA must be a tool to expand access to education, not a barrier. Students who need our help the most are facing the biggest burden in getting financial aid. We need to do everything we can to make their lives easier," Murray said at an education committee hearing in September.
The changes could be included as part of the spending bill being negotiated by congressional leaders, and they are likely to have the support of top senators like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, noted that the top Republican in the Senate choked up on the Senate floor in introducing Alexander Wednesday. McConnell, indeed, had said he is “dreading life in the Senate without [his] brilliant friend.”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, called Alexander, in his own tribute, a “man of principle,” whom he used to talk with every morning in the Senate gym before the pandemic. Schumer recalled spending a weekend at Alexander’s Tennessee farm with their wives, calling it a “beautiful weekend we will always cherish and remember.”
Alexander, at his final hearing of the education committee in September, had said that the long FAFSA form deters students from going to college, and simplifying it is particularly important when the pandemic is reducing enrollment.
“Twenty million students and their families are in the middle of what is likely the strangest first semester of college in a century,” he said at the hearing. “Almost everything has changed for students, except for one thing -- students still have to answer 108 questions on the dreaded FAFSA form.
“Imagine how much less motivated anyone is to fill out those 108 FAFSA questions this year,” he said.
Simplifying the FAFSA would be applauded by financial aid administrators. “While beneficial to all students and families, simplifying the FAFSA would be particularly helpful for low-income students, those who are most likely to feel discouraged by the complexity of the financial aid application process. It is a sad irony that low-income students, who stand to benefit the most from federal student aid, are completing the FAFSA at a rate seven percentage points lower than that of their higher-income peers,” Draeger wrote McConnell, Schumer and House leaders on Thursday.
“The timing for FAFSA simplification could not be more urgent, and the need perhaps never greater amid this global pandemic, with FAFSA completions among high school seniors currently down 15% compared to this time last year,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, as negotiations over more COVD-19 relief continues, congressional Democrats are urging Republicans to work off a $908 billion proposal put forth by a bipartisan group of House and Senate members, which would include $82 billion in additional coronavirus relief funding for all of education. It’s not clear how much of that would go to colleges and universities. “Any financial relief will be welcome, but the amounts under discussion are unlikely to come remotely close to meeting the needs of students and institutions,” said Hartle.
The bipartisan proposal is intended to be a bridge until March, buying Congress time to take up a larger aid package once the Biden administration takes office. Hartle said it should be seen as an “interim measure” and the colleges and universities will be pushing for more help under the new administration.