Government

Is It Finally Time to Simplify the Fafsa? Signs Point to Yes.

November 28, 2017

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images
Sen. Lamar Alexander dangles a paper copy of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to emphasize its length. The application, which could be available as a mobile app as early as next spring, is also being scrutinized by the Senate education committee, of which Senator Alexander is the chairman.

Elaine G. Williams earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in May. But the road to graduation was anything but easy.

She first experienced homelessness in middle school, and the burden of maintaining a healthy living environment weighed on her. But she made it to high school, where she graduated, only to hit another obstacle: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa.

Filling out the application is a rite of passage for college-bound students and their families, and for homeless applicants the bureaucratic requirements can seem insurmountable. Among those who have struggled through the Fafsa, there is near unanimity that the application needs to be simplified. On Tuesday, that sentiment was on the minds of some of the nation’s top education policy-setters.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos kicked off the day with the announcement that the department would create a mobile app for the Fafsa.

"There is no continuity of experience for borrowers," she said during her keynote speech at the Federal Student Aid Training Conference for Financial Aid Professionals, in Orlando. "A student may begin the aid process through at least three different portals," Ms. DeVos continued, "Then, if the student is eligible and a loan is secured, that same student will now be passed off to begin working with his or her school’s financial-aid office."

Ms. DeVos said the app would be a more "consumer friendly" ecosystem for students, and meet them where they are. "The goal is a customer experience that will rival Amazon or Apple’s Genius Bar," she said, "one that better serves students and taxpayers."

An Education Department spokesman told The Chronicle that the department hopes to launch the app by next spring, and that the web version of the application would still be available to those who need it.

The announcement was met with excitement. "We’ve seen more and more people are using smartphones and just easy-to-use interfaces to get through their daily lives," said Tariq Habash, a policy associate at the Century Foundation. "This is just another way to make the Fafsa more digestible for Americans in the 21st century."

But the key to the app’s success will be in the details, several experts told The Chronicle, including its accessibility for non-English speakers, its launch on multiple platforms, and potential security concerns.

Ms. DeVos acknowledged the latter issue in her speech, remarking that the initiative included "enhancing cybersecurity to protect personal data."

"This is a responsibility the department has neglected for too long," she said. "We are making marked improvements because there are serious and ever-iterating threats." Earlier this year, the department was forced to shut down a tool that makes it easier for students to fill out the Fafsa after it was compromised.

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, commended the secretary for her awareness of the security issues but said he does not think they are a deal-breaker for the app. "There are concerns," he said, "but those concerns are systemic with regard to anything you put on the internet."

"You could argue that a mobile app could be more secure," he continued. "But the department really needs to up its game with regard to security anyway."

Possible Bipartisan Action

Against the backdrop of the announcement about the mobile app, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions met to discuss simplifying the Fafsa in the Higher Education Act, the landmark law governing higher education, which is overdue for a reauthorization.

Ms. Williams, the recent Virginia Commonwealth grad, was one of five witnesses who shared ideas for simplifying the application. Suggestions included basing Pell Grant awards on data available from the Internal Revenue Service, eliminating yearly status determinations for homeless students, and, of course, trimming the 100-plus questions that weigh down the behemoth.

"In spite of the many obstacles, I made it to the finish line," says Ms. Williams, who now, at 24, works for the YWCA in Richmond. She hopes to be a part of the process to make it easier for students in situations similar to hers.

In discussing simplification, it’s important to remember that each student’s situation is unique, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, which advocates for homeless children and youths. Oversimplification could create its own set of issues.

There was near-unanimous agreement among those at the hearing that the Fafsa needs to be sophisticated — perhaps even complex — just not for the applicants.

Discussing the need to simplify and actually moving the ball forward, however, are two different things. But lawmakers are optimistic they can get it done.

"This committee has a record of bipartisan solutions to big, complex problems, and I’m confident we can find a bipartisan path forward to tackle these issues head on," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee. "Our students are counting on it."

Policy experts who spoke to The Chronicle agree, adding that the flurry of movement in recent weeks on a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is encouraging. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the Republican chair of the education committee, plans to release her version of the reauthorization this fall.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, said during the hearing that while he saw progress in Tuesday’s discussion, he looks forward to moving to action. A mark-up of a reauthorization bill is the first order of business for the committee in the new year, he said.

"After four years of discussion over how to simplify the Fafsa," Senator Alexander said, "it is time to come to a result."

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.