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Education Dept. To Simplify Aid Forms, Seek Other Changes

The federal student aid form for low- and middle-income students will undergo significant changes under reforms announced by the Obama administration on Wednesday.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will increase post-secondary enrollment among needy students – part of the administration’s effort to “once again have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world.”

“To do that, we need to make the college-going process easier and more convenient and to send a clear message to young people as well as adults that college is within their reach,” Duncan said. “Simplifying the financial aid process is an important step toward reaching that goal.”

Some changes already are taking place, while others will gradually be phased in over the next few months. For example, a new technology enhancement will provide instant estimates of Pell Grant and student loan eligibility. Previously, students might have waited weeks to hear about such information.

Later this summer, the revised web-based FAFSA will have new “skip-logic” technology to reduce the time students spend navigating through questions.

By next January, the Education Department said it will establish links with the Internal Revenue Service so that applicants’ relevant tax information is accessible through the online FAFSA.

Another guiding principle is that low-income students no longer will have to answer detailed questions about their assets, officials said.

But the administration would need help from Congress in eliminating some provisions. For example, it will ask Congress to remove about 26 questions dealing with financial information not readily available from the IRS.

The department also said it would simplify a question about students’ prior drug convictions, an issue important to many student groups. The FAFSA currently asks students about such cases, and those with convictions lose their aid. The department said it would no longer ask the drug question of first-year college students, since the ban applies only to students who have convictions while receiving financial aid.

The impact of the change is minimal, said Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “It just simplifies the process. It means no change in the policy,” he told Diverse. “There’s no point in asking the question to first-year students.”

But by opening the door to congressional action on the FAFSA, the Obama administration could pave the way for a new debate about the drug conviction question, Krane said. At each congressional session, about 80 lawmakers sponsor legislation to remove the question, noting that it unfairly hurts low-income students trying to pursue higher education. But the bill has never gained majority support.

If the House and Senate take up FAFSA simplification at Obama’s request, Krane said, “It does open up some possibilities.”

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