Improving Student Financial Aid in the New Congress
Simplifying the application process would improve access to federal financial aid for community college students.
As the 116th Congress convenes, the first major to-do item for higher education is reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), which has been pending since 2014. While the House and Senate education committees already have done substantial work to consider the HEA and large topic areas of interest, the committees have not been able to agree on a comprehensive, bipartisan reauthorization of the act.
In the 115th Congress, neither the House nor the Senate was able to pass an HEA reauthorization. What was previously called the House Education and Workforce Committee — its name was changed from “Education and Workforce” to “Education and Labor” in the 116th Congress — passed the PROSPER ACT, a comprehensive HEA rewrite, out of committee. However, PROSPER was unable to garner enough support for a vote on the floor of the House. Many representatives voiced concern about the financial impact that new risk-sharing provisions would have on institutions, especially open- access institutions, and cuts to federal student financial aid. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee did not introduce a comprehensive rewrite, but instead introduced several smaller bills that would have impacted higher education. However, these bills did not pass.
While many areas are under consideration as part of HEA reauthorization, Congress continues to focus on ensuring that students can more easily apply for and receive federal financial aid. Successfully completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) remains a significant hurdle for students and their families. Anyone who has filled out the FAFSA knows the difficulty and time-consuming nature of the application. The form is lengthy, and students often have difficulty accessing family financial information. Moreover, students must complete the FAFSA every year they wish to receive federal aid. Changing many of the questions on the FAFSA and the yearly process would require an act of Congress. In the meantime, the Department of Education has worked to help students by creating a mobile app through which the FAFSA can be completed as well as a data retrieval tool to access tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service to facilitate completion of the form.
While FAFSA completion rates have gone up in recent years, community college students lag behind their counterparts in other sectors. According to the 2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, only 72 percent of community college students apply for federal financial aid. By comparison, 85 percent of public four-year students and 90 percent of private, non-profit four-year students apply for federal financial aid. For many community college students, the FAFSA can be a big red stop sign that impedes accessing federal funds, thereby limiting access to higher education.
Even if students are successful in filling out the FAFSA, approximately half of Pell-eligible FAFSA applicants are flagged for verification, according to the National College Access Network. Essentially, through this process the government is saying to students, “we know you are low-income, but we need additional information for you to prove it.” At many community colleges, students who have the greatest need and have a $0 expected family contribution (EFC) are routinely chosen for verification and required to submit additional information. Among those flagged for verification, roughly one quarter do not complete their applications, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN). Many are community college students.
ACCT recently participated in a One-Time FAFSA project with the Center for American Progress and the National Student Financial Aid Administrators to assess changes to students’ aid eligibility over time and determine options for reducing the burden of the FAFSA process. The study included data for more than 236,000 students, two-thirds of whom were community college students. The study highlights that 90 percent of students who began college with a $0 EFC experienced little to no change in their ability to pay. For low-income students, economic circumstances rarely changed during enrollment. Furthermore, the study highlights that 52 percent of independent students without dependents had an EFC change of $500 or less, and 80 percent of independent students with dependents had an EFC change of $500 or less.
For all our efforts to increase the Pell Grant maximum and allow students the ability to access Pell year-round, the impact will be undermined if thousands of community college students are still unable to access federal financial aid. Without financial aid, many are more likely to drop their college enrollments or reduce their course loads. To ensure as many students as possible receive aid, Congress needs to significantly simplify the FAFSA and ease the burdens of the financial aid process. Additionally, college leaders should work with their financial aid offices to gather data on financial aid access and the number of students impacted by verification to inform your colleges’ advocacy for an improved process.
As you prepare and continue your advocacy efforts for meetings and letters to members of Congress, visit www.acct. org/page/other-advocacy-resources to get up-to-date fact sheets, letters, and legislative priorities.
It is important that trustees and college leaders continue to support community college priorities. Make your voice heard by visiting your member of Congress and talking about these key issues. To keep updated on key legislative items, sign up for the Latest Action in Washington alerts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jee Hang Lee is ACCT Vice President for Public Policy and External Relations.