Education Officials Aim to Simplify Student Aid Application Process

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By Emily Wilkins

The Education Department and senators are working on ways to make it easier for students to apply for financial aid by allowing them to answer fewer questions and do so on their phones.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the department plans to create a mobile app for aid applications. Later Nov. 27, top education lawmakers in the Senate announced a revised bipartisan bill to slim down the 108-question application.

Speaking to student aid officers at a training conference, DeVos said the goal is for students to be able to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on their phones and in a single sitting.

The Federal Student Aid program (FSA) “will look and function like a world-class, customer-centric financial institution, not a government maze,” DeVos said. “The goal is a customer experience that will rival Amazon or Apple’s Genius Bar, one that better serves students and taxpayers.”

DeVos said the department also plans to enhance cybersecurity and stressed the need to simplify the loan repayment process. Currently, there are more than 30 repayment plans and the same student might have multiple loans with different loan servicers.

At the same time, DeVos downplayed what role her department should have in the loan marketplace and criticized the Obama administration for its involvement.

“Regrettably, the previous administration sold students—and all of you—on greater governmental involvement in the student loan marketplace,” she said. “Everything became more complicated and burdensome for everyone, the process more cumbersome and confusing.”

House, Senate Activity

DeVos said her department is working with Congress to streamline the student loan program. At least one proposal is expected before mid-December from Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has also sponsored legislation to pare down the number of questions on the FAFSA.

During a committee hearing Nov. 27, Alexander said he and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are close to completing a bill that would cut down the FAFSA form from 108 questions to 15 to 25 questions, depending on how students answer questions about their family.

Alexander and Bennet introduced legislation in 2015 to reduce the number of FAFSA questions to two. While higher education groups and individual colleges embrace the idea of making it easier for students to access federal aid, there are concerns a slimmed-down FAFSA might contain too little information to be used by states, schools and outside groups that currently use FASFA to award aid.

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told senators at the hearing that if the form didn’t provide accurate data on a student’s finances, students might have to begin filling out multiple forms to fully access aid.

“The unifying concept of the FAFSA is that all these different grant providers can try to rely on one form so we don’t have fragmented, multiple forms throughout the process,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com

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