As national leaders prepare for a summit on higher education’s future, congressional Democrats and the Bush administration are vying for the spotlight in an effort to simplify the bulky Free Application for Federal Student Aid used by low-income students.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings yesterday unveiled plans for the “FAFSA4caster,” a Web-based tool to provide students and families with estimates of eligibility for Pell Grants and other aid long before high school graduation. In unveiling the initiative, department officials also said they are testing a system through which students without Internet access may complete the FAFSA over the phone.
There is a “crying need” to simplify the application process, Spellings said in a conference call Wednesday. Of the new Web-based application, she said, “This is a tool that will be used by millions of families. It will be a timesaver for them.”
The Education Department plans to launch the new forecaster on April 1 at www.federalstudentaid.ed.gov, with a Spanish-language version available April 29. In addition to forecasting Pell eligibility based on family financial data, the system can help families determine their expected contribution to college costs.
The announcement came just a day after congressional Democrats unveiled their own simplification plan. The College Aid Made EZ Act would shrink the FAFSA from five pages down to two, in part through new links between the Education Department and the Internal Revenue Service to capture already available data.
“Multibillion dollar corporations fill out 13-question forms to receive million dollar Export-Import Bank loans,” said U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. “Shouldn’t it be just as easy for high school seniors and their families to pay for college?”
The Democrats’ bill also would emphasize early awareness, with a pre-FAFSA available to high school juniors so they can get additional information to plan for college.
The bill’s introduction coincided with release of a new report urging the department to remove most income questions on the financial aid form. The Institute for College Access and Success calls for linking the FAFSA to a family’s 1040 tax forms, a level of cooperation that would shorten the aid process not only for parents but also for colleges and universities.
“Students and parents would no longer face some of the most difficult, intimidating and error-prone questions on the FAFSA,” says Lauren Asher, author of the institute’s report, “Going to the Source: A Practical Way to Simplify the FAFSA.”
Such changes may address the growing problem of students who qualify for need-based aid but fail to apply for it. The institute says 1.5 million college students were eligible for Pell Grants but did not apply in 2004 — a figure that has doubled since 2000.
“The required income information can be extremely difficult for students from low-income families to track down, and parents are often reluctant to let their children see how little they earn,” says J.B. Schramm, founder of College Summit, a nonprofit organization that works to build college awareness in low-income schools.
Simplifying the FAFSA was one of several recommendations from last year’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The issue will get renewed attention today at a higher education summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by Spellings to examine the commission’s findings.
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