U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander wants to squeeze FAFSA down to postcard size

Sen. Lamar Alexander speaks to reporters and editors at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on June 5, 2015.
Sen. Lamar Alexander speaks to reporters and editors at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on June 5, 2015.

Tennessee's U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander hasn't yet shrunk down to postcard size the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a 108-question form that needs to be filed annually for college students to get most types of financial aid.

But he hopes to do so when the Higher Education Act comes up for reauthorization in September.

"I may not get it down to two questions, but I can get it down," Alexander said during a talk Friday with Times Free Press reporters and editors.

Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have made a bipartisan effort to reform the FAFSA.

They introduced legislation to replace it with the two-question version they dubbed the "Student Aid Short Form."

The proposed legislation would allow year-round use of Pell grants, discourage over-borrowing and simplify repayments, the senators say. It also would let high school juniors learn their eligibility for federal aid, instead of making them wait until their senior year.

The FAFSA is so daunting that its scares some students away from applying for college, said Alexander, former president of the University of Tennessee, U.S. Education Department head and two-term governor.

It's also a chore, he said, for high school seniors who have signed up for Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam's new program that guarantees to cover the costs of a two-year technical or community college degree. Mentors who help seniors participate in Tennessee Promise have to help fill out FAFSA, Alexander said, taking away from mentoring time.

"If I can simplify this form, I can make Tennessee Promise work a bit better," Alexander said.

Not everyone is impressed with Alexander's proposed FAFSA reform.

"Virtually no one does the paper FAFSA," Ted Malone executive director of the financial aid division at Purdue University, said in an email. "The FAFSA is done online by over 99 percent of the filers. It is a smart form and almost no one is asked all the questions."

"The first 26 questions are demographics that will still need to be asked, they will still need to send the information to schools," Malone said. "The Senator's shtick is entertaining, but ... the postcard idea would be a colossal step backward."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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