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Breaking down barriers to student aid: Reforming the FAFSA & expanding opportunity

Guest Column
Sunday, November 3, 2019

With Halloween upon us, paying for college and avoiding looming student debt are even scarier prospects for many Rattler seniors. Like Halloween candy, much federal student financial assistance is free—but you have to ask for it first. The paperwork needed to make that ask can appear intimidating. This month, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2020-2021 school year was made available. The priority deadline to complete the FAFSA for high school seniors applying to Texas state colleges and universities is January 15, 2020. Other post-secondary institutions may have their own FAFSA deadlines, but most schools require that FAFSA is submitted prior to starting school.

After a decade of working for a more streamlined financial aid process, I still find FAFSA too complicated, confusing, and underutilized. I am working to reform the process and take the intimidation out. Last year, high school graduates who failed to submit a FAFSA missed out on $2.6 billion in free money for college. That’s $2.6 billion of missed opportunity. With the ever-rising cost of college, this financial aid is needed more than ever.

Addressing the student debt crisis is central to promoting a strong economy, opening up opportunities, and ensuring security for those who work hard. Cracks in our financial aid system often perpetuate inequality—inequality that stands in the way of pursuing the American Dream.

I successfully authored an amendment to simplify this process and make the FAFSA available on October 1, so that students had more time to navigate the financial aid application process. But, because barriers remain, I have filed two bills this Congress. These reform efforts are particularly important in Texas because in order to graduate, next year’s seniors will be required to complete the FAFSA.

My bipartisan Student Aid Simplification Act requires two bureaucracies to work together—the Department of Education and IRS—to do the heavy lifting for students by securely sharing the remaining taxpayer information required for FAFSA completion—the amount of income. This would make the process quicker for millions, including so many San Marcos high school seniors seeking to head to Texas State, Austin Community College, the University of Texas, and elsewhere.

My second bill, the Equitable Student Aid Access Act, would allow more students to use a simplified FAFSA form. This means that a student who already receives certain federal means-tested benefits, like food stamps and Medicaid, could automatically qualify for a Pell Grant. Second, it would permit students (for those with up to $34,000 household income) to complete a simplified FAFSA form.

Third, it makes it easier for students to make financially-informed decisions about the cost of college. After applying for aid, students and their families must make one of the most significant financial decision in their lives—where to attend college—but while doing so, they often lack clear information about the cost of attendance. This bill would ensure colleges and students speak the same language, developing universal terms and formatting for financial aid offer letters. Students should be able to easily compare offers and make the college decision that is right for them.

Given the roadblocks and complexity we currently face in the FAFSA, it is particularly important for families to get an early start and stay organized. Fortunately, there are local organizations helping students and families complete the FAFSA. Austin Chamber of Commerce will be hosting FAFSA Saturdays at a few schools and, for help much closer to home, the college counselors at San Marcos High School are a resource for families to seek assistance. More information can be found online.

I encourage FAFSA-filers to take advantage of these great resources. As I continue to push forward to make aid more accessible, I welcome your good counsel. If you have insight into or ideas about how we can alleviate the student debt crisis and break down barriers to equal opportunity, you can email me at lloyd.doggett@mail.house.gov.

San Marcos Record

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