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Higher Ed Bills Get Bipartisan Support in Congress

WASHINGTON — You know the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — better known as the FAFSA — which is a laborious and time-consuming form that students must fill out to get money for college?


Well, there could soon be an app for that.


Under a series of bipartisan higher education bills hammered out Wednesday by the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce, there’s one — called the Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act — that requires the FAFSA to be made available on a mobile app.


The bill also requires the online and paper versions of the FAFSA to be consumer tested.


“Both of these measures will make the application process easier and more user-friendly,” said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., a co-sponsor of the bill.


The proposed measure is just one of several that the committee approved and sent to the House Wednesday for consideration.


One bill calls for the creation of a “College Dashboard” to replace the existing College Navigator, a federally maintained website that helps students get information about prospective colleges. One bill is meant to strengthen HBCUs. Another is meant to “close the diversity gap among physicians” by increasing the number of Hispanic students who pursue careers as physicians, dentists or other health care professionals. Yet another is meant to provide essential information to students as they apply for financial aid and student loans.


“These proposals will help students and parents better understand their higher education options,” said committee chairman U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. “The bills will also enhance existing support for institutions serving minority students and hold those institutions accountable for how they are using that support.”


While Wednesday’s proceeding represented a somewhat uncharacteristic instance of bipartisanship, several Democratic members — including U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., stressed the need for a “full-scale” reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.


Kline conceded the point.


“While there is a lot of work still to be done to complete the reauthorization process, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps now to deliver important reforms students, parents and taxpayers need,” Kline said.


Besides the new FAFSA mobile app, the Simplifying the Application for Student Aid act is meant to ensure students are able to use income data from two years prior when they apply for student aid — essentially codifying an existing executive order from the Obama administration that allows for the same — and receive accurate aid information as soon as possible.


“This bill will ensure students are able to use prior-prior year data in the future,” Heck said. “This will allow them to complete the FAFSA earlier and receive information about their aid options sooner.”


Heck said the bill will also provide aid administrators more time to verify the income of applicants so that administrators can provide students with accurate aid information as soon as possible.


The bill also requires the U.S. Department of Education to “make every effort” to enable more applicants to import their available income data through the IRS, “helping them automatically populate answers to many FASFA questions with information from their tax returns, making it easier on students and parents to easily complete the form.”


The IRS data retrieval tool referenced in the bill is not new but the bill seeks to make it more prevalent.


Other bills approved Wednesday include:


The Accessing Higher Education Opportunities Act (H.R. 5529), seeks to help students at Hispanic-serving institutions pursue a career as a physician, dentist or other health care professionals, according to the committee, by allowing Hispanic-serving institutions, or HSIs, to use funds to support students preparing for all health care-related doctoral programs, according to Rep. Heck, a co-sponsor of the bill along with Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif.


Another provision enhances dual enrollment opportunities and early college programs at high schools.


Citing statistics that show only 5 percent of America’s physicians are Hispanic, despite the fact that the Hispanic population has increased to 17 percent, Heck said: “Ultimately, this bill will help us address a growing doctors shortage and close the diversity gap among physicians by helping students at HSIs achieve the dream of higher education.”


The HBCU Capital Financing Improvement Act (H.R. 5530), which seeks to “improve access to and oversight of an existing program that enables Historically Black Colleges and Universities to improve their campuses to better serve their students,” according to the committee.


The bill “provides additional support to institutions interested in participating but unable to meet program financial aid requirements,” and also allows the Education Department to offer financial counseling to interested HBCUs, which is not specified under current law, said Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., a co-sponsor of the bill.


The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3178), which is meant to help students “gain access to the facts they need to make an informed decision about where to pursue their education,” according to the committee.


This bill calls for the creation of a College Dashboard that will include more information than is currently available on federally maintained databases about institutions of higher education, such as College Navigator, IPEDs and the College Scorecard.


For instance, it calls for completion rates for Pell Grant recipients and out-of-state students, and typical federal student loan debt for graduates.


The Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 3179), is meant to “promote financial literacy by enhancing the timing, frequency, and content of counseling for all recipients of federal financial aid.”


U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said with 42 million Americans owing $1.2 trillion in student loans, “the need for this enhanced financial counseling is clear.”


One out of every four student loan borrowers is behind on their payments, she said, while the consequences of missing a payment can be severe or long-lasting.


“It doesn’t solve all the problems,” she said of the bill. “But this bill is clearly a step in the right direction.”


Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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