Adam Tamburin, The Tennessean
The White House over the weekend announced changes to the FAFSA that have long been endorsed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, and that the administration said would eliminate the biggest roadblock for students going to college with federal aid.
Beginning in 2016, students will be able to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid starting in October, when they’re deciding where to apply, instead of the following January. They’ll also be allowed to file the FAFSA using information from their 2015 tax return.
About 4 million students file for aid before they have access to their latest tax return, according to Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education. Many of those students must return to the FAFSA months later to verify that information.
White House officials say moving up the FAFSA start date by three months and allowing families to use a previous tax return will cut down on students’ verification headaches and will create “an easier and earlier FAFSA.”
“These changes will essentially eliminate the largest roadblock to FAFSA completion,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said during a Monday conference call with reporters.
Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate’s education committee, has advocated for similar changes as part of a legislative overhaul of the Higher Education Act.
“Everyone agrees this makes it easier and simpler for students to attend college, and it should have been done long ago,” Alexander said Monday in a prepared statement. “Congress gave the president authority to do this in 2008. A bipartisan group of senators have been urging this for two years and intend to include it in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this year, including a way to pay for it.”
The changes could have a sweeping impact on Tennessee Promise, a scholarship program that has gotten national attention for improving college access for students across the socioeconomic spectrum. In the first year of Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam has acknowledged that the cumbersome FAFSA process has pushed some students away.
Krissy DeAlejandro, who runs tnAchives, the nonprofit that guides most Tennessee Promise students toward community or technical college, said the changes offer “the opportunity for financial aid to be a less arduous path for students.”
“The sooner that students can engage in the process of college going in a supportive environment the better,” DeAlejandro said. “This gives us the opportunity to start having those conversations even earlier in the senior year, which leads to greater success on the student side.”
Call to shrink the FAFSA
Along with the announcement of a revamped FAFSA timeline, President Barack Obama has renewed his call for Congress to cut the length of the FAFSA questionnaire. His administration identified up to 30 questions that could be eliminated.
Alexander has been a longtime champion of a shorter FAFSA form. He has said it could be shortened to the size of a postcard. During an event last month in Nashville, Alexander called the FAFSA the “single biggest barrier” to college.
“If you walk in with a 108-question form to your mom or your grandma, they’re going to be reluctant to fill it out,” Alexander said at the time. “They’re not accustomed to it, they’re intimidated by it. It’s difficult to do.”
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.