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Hearing of the Senate Health, Education. Labor, and Pensions Committee - Opening Statement of Sen. Alexander, Hearing on FAFSA Simplification


Date: March 12, 2019
Location: Washington, DC

There are not many things that United States senators can do to cause 20 million American families to say, "thank you."

After five years of work, we are ready to do just that by reducing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- the FAFSA -- from 108 questions to two dozen, and eliminate the need for families to give their financial information to the federal government twice.

This will help 400,000 families in Tennessee, 350,000 families in Senator Murray's Washington State, and millions more for each of us who have it in our hands to finish our work on simplifying the FAFSA.

A volunteer mentor with Tennessee Promise, which is our state's program that provides two years of free community college, told me that the FAFSA--the form that 20 million families fill out each year to apply for federal student aid--has a "chilling effect" on students and on parents.

The former president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis told me he believes that he loses 1,500 students each semester because the FAFSA is too complicated.

East Tennessee State University said a third of their applicants -- approximately 10,000 -- are selected each year for verification -- a complicated process that stops Pell Grant payments while a student and their family scrambles to submit their federal tax information or prove they did not have to file taxes.

Former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam told me that Tennessee has the highest rate of filling out the FAFSA, but it is still the single biggest impediment to more students enrolling in Tennessee Promise.

And one of the questions I hear most from students is, can you please make it simpler to apply for federal aid?

Five years ago at a hearing before this Committee we heard that the vast majority of questions on the FAFSA are unnecessary.

I asked if the four witnesses could each write a letter to the Committee recommending how they would simplify the FAFSA.

The witnesses looked at each other and said, we don't have to write you four letters -- we can write you one letter because we agree.

And Senator Bennet, who was on the Committee at the time, said, if that's true, and if there's that much agreement, why don't we do what you recommend?

So we started talking with other Senators, students, college administrators, and other experts about how to simplify the FAFSA.

Simplifying the FAFSA started gaining traction.

First, the Obama Administration allowed families to fill out the FAFSA using their tax information from the previous year so they could apply to school in the fall, rather than having to wait until spring.

Second, the Trump Administration has put the FAFSA application on a phone app. I was at Sevier County High School in November and saw students zipping through the FAFSA on their iPhones.

Third, last year the Senate passed legislation Senator Murray and I introduced that allows students to answer up to 22 questions on the FAFSA with just one click and will stop requiring students to give the same information to the federal government twice. We are working with the House to see if we can make that a law this year.

The final step should be our bipartisan solution that will reduce the number of questions on the FAFSA from 108 to 15-25 questions.

In 2015, Senator Bennet and I, along with Senators Booker, Burr, King, Enzi, Warner, and Isakson, introduced bipartisan legislation that would have reduced the number of FAFSA questions to two.

But after discussions with college administrators and states, we realized we needed to keep some questions or states and schools would have to create their own additional forms that students would need to fill out.

Over the last four years, we have improved that legislation and now believe we can move forward with bipartisan legislation that would reduce the FAFSA to 15-25 questions.

Here is what all of these improvements mean to the 20 million families that fill out the FAFSA every year:

One: Reduce the 108 questions to 15-25.

Two: Dramatically decrease the number of students selected for verification, because students' tax data would automatically transfer to the Department of Education which would greatly reduce the need for verification.

Three: Simplifying the form and the verification process should encourage more students to apply for federal aid, which will ensure that eligible students receive the Pell they deserve.

Four: Students can now complete the FAFSA on their iPhone.

Five: Families can now apply for federal student aid sooner because they can use information from their last year's tax return; and

Six: Students can find out as early as eighth grade how much Pell grant funding they may be eligible for.

And seven: there is a $6 billion advantage to taxpayers -- that is the amount the Department of Education estimates is issued in improper payments every year

These are seven huge advantages and are the result of five years of hearings and work by senators, and work by both the Obama and Trump Administrations.

Bipartisan discussions have produced a lot of agreement on simplifying the number of questions, so the purpose of this hearing is to learn what we need to know before taking the final step.

I also hear from students -- can you make repaying student loans simpler?

A large number of Republican and Democrat senators have suggested streamlining the nine ways to repay student loans, including Senators Warner, King, Rubio, Merkley, Burr and Baldwin.

I have proposed having just two ways to repay student loans:

One, a plan based on a borrower's income, which would never require the borrower to make payments of more than ten percent of his or her discretionary income.

If a borrower wanted to pay off their loan, the other option would be a 10-year payment plan, with equal monthly payments, similar to a 10-year mortgage.

And under both options, a borrower's payment would come directly from their paycheck.

This proposal would make it easier for more than 9 million borrowers annually, and any of the current 42 million borrowers with outstanding federal loan debt, to take advantage of a simpler and more affordable way to repay their loans.

And from administrators I hear--can't you do something about the administrative burden that wastes time and money that could instead be spent on students?

To help administrators overwhelmed by what the Kirwan-Zeppos report called "a jungle of red tape," I am proposing we simplify federal regulations that take time and money away from educating students.

There are other steps this Committee is considering to make college worth students' time and money, but we also have the opportunity to greatly simplify the "chilling effect" applying for federal aid has on students today.