The U.S. Department of Education is launching an effort to reform and simplify how college students apply for and receive financial aid.
The federal student aid form needs to be cut down from 100 to nine questions and the aid formula should be revamped and more closely tied to adjusted gross income and the number of dependents, said Under Secretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker. She made the announcement on July 17 in Chicago at a national summit addressing affordability, accountability and accessibility in higher education.
“I want federal aid to create hope, not extinguish it,” Tucker said in an interview with Diverse. “Yes, the financing of higher education is complex, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship between the Department of Education and families and students has to be complex.”
Tucker said the government needs to distribute aid more efficiently and increase the number of people, rather than simply raising the amount of aid available. While the amount of federal grants, loans and tax credits has tripled since 1992 to $160 billion, the percentage of college students has remained flat. Furthermore, about 40 percent of students attending four-year public schools need to add a quarter to a third of their income to complement the aid packages they receive.
Tucker said the department will convene experts to develop proposals to present to Congress.
One plan would be to zero out other types of aid, such as the state opportunity education grants, and direct that money to the Pell Grant Program. An estimated $1.7 billion could be directed into Pell grants and increase the maximum award amounts to each student.
Tucker said such streamlining would give students a “portable portfolio” of financial aid that they could take with them to any school. Currently, some grants are only available at selected schools.
Also under consideration is how to better inform students about their eligibility for federal aid. Students now have to wait for an award letter from a school. The only communication they get from the federal government is how much debt they have and how much of their own funds they are expected to contribute to tuition. Tucker said education officials want students to know about their eligibility for loans and grants before they have to decide on a school.
“I think to the extent that we’re investing in students and we’re able to communicate with them earlier about what’s possible and probable and predictable, we can create hope for our disadvantaged students,” she said.
Education officials have only six more months before a new presidential administration could come in with other ideas and priorities. But Tucker said that it’s enough time to galvanize support for the reform.
“At the very least, we’ve gone on the record” about the issue, she said.
Many of the college presidents and higher education organizations attending the summit supported the reform ideas. Eve Hall of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which provides scholarships and support to public historically Black colleges and universities, said the complexity of the aid forms and application process tends to discourage students and families.
“Given the urgency for education opportunities for economically disadvantaged and underrepresented students, we need to be more supportive and make sure they can get the help they need,” said Hall, the fund’s vice president of school reform.
Dr. William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, said that the new model proposed seems innovative and more transparent. “This is something we need to get some energy behind,” he said.
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