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WASHINGTON — The form that millions of students use to apply for financial aid for college — and that many others never bother to fill out because it’s so complicated — could get easier to use if it shed a few questions and allowed students and families to use technology that draws data directly from their electronic tax returns.
These ideas – proffered at a daylong forum here on how to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA – are not new. But such efforts have intensified as college has become more expensive and more students have been thwarted by the difficult application. And now Congress is considering legislative action to make the FAFSA easier to use.
So about 80 people, including Congressional staffers, advocates for students, university representatives and lobbyists, gathered to discuss ideas new and old at the forum, which was convened by the National College Access Network, an organization of nonprofit groups that help students apply to college.
According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), more than two million students a year would qualify for aid but don’t fill out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is required for most federal, state and institutional scholarship and loan programs.
Even though FAFSA simplification has been a priority of President Obama since the start of his first term, the goal hasn’t been met. But some progress has been made. College access advocates hailed the Obama administration’s September decision to let students use what’s referred to as “prior-prior year,” or PPY, tax information on the FAFSA.
Among other things, that move means more students will be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which allows the FAFSA to be automatically populated with tax return data, thus reducing the time and trouble it takes to fill out the form. That was not possible for many to do before, because hardly anyone has current-year tax data available on January 1, when the FAFSA currently is made available. That, too, will change next year, when the form is made available in October.
“Yes, progress has been made, but the mission is not yet accomplished,” said Travis Reindl, senior communications officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a supporter of Monday’s forum.
One of the non-legislative proposals that got a warm reception at the forum came from the NASFAA. Under it, America’s poorest families — such as those who have already qualified for certain federal welfare programs — would automatically qualify for the maximum $5,775 awarded under a Pell grant, the federal subsidy for students with financial need.
“That’s the fast track for folks so they don’t have to prove over and over again that they’re low-income,” said Justin Draeger president of the NASFAA.
The NASFAA proposal suggests three categories: people too poor to file tax returns, ordinary taxpayers and people with more complicated tax situations. Those who file the regular 1040 tax form would be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically fill out their FAFSA; those with more complicated tax situations would have to fill out additional forms.
Draeger said NASFAA proposal would end the longstanding tension between the need for a simpler FAFSA and the need to capture an accurate picture of a student’s finances.
“We’ve reached a point where we can stop arguing over simplification versus program integrity, and meld the two,” Draeger said.
But given the dynamics of the 2016 Presidential election, that may not be so easy, said Alex Nock, a principal at the Penn Hill Group, a lobbying organization. FAFSA simplification tilts toward being seen as a Democratic issue because it’s about college access for the poor, Nock said. To become more of a priority for Republicans, it must be cast as something that will broaden the talent pool for employers, too.
“You need to show both sides why there’s something there,” Nock said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education