Fixing the On-Ramp to Higher Education | Commentary

This year portends to be an important one for higher education in Washington. Last week, both political parties and the White House were already falling over themselves to offer proposals that could pay major political and practical dividends.

President Barack Obama recently proposed a bold idea: Provide two years of free community college for everyone by covering enough tuition to get students who perform well academically an associate’s degree. A laudable goal, and the higher education debate truly needs ambitious proposals of this kind. But lost amid the theatrics surrounding the administration’s community college proposal was a less noticed, yet arguably more practical legislative solution introduced to the immediate challenge of applying for student aid.

Hours after the opening of the 114th Congress, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced bipartisan legislation designed to simplify student aid. Admittedly, next to the promise of free college, topics such as improving governmental forms don’t generate as much excitement. Yet, the Senate bill is actually more pragmatic, more likely to pass and doesn’t carry the significant cost challenges of the president’s proposal. Even with free college, there will still be only one “on-ramp” for families to access hundreds of billions of dollars in college grants and loans: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Currently, that on-ramp is near impossible for some to access.

America’s financial aid application is a maze which we demand students and their parents to navigate — and research suggests fewer apply and enroll because of its unnecessary complexity. National leaders and experts (for example, the American Dream 2.0 coalition convened by HCM Strategists) confirm the need for a simpler, more transparent financial aid system with fewer barriers to innovation — exactly the construct of the bill introduced in the Senate last week.

The cumbersome FAFSA form can be simplified significantly, providing students with an up-front understanding of how much they can expect to receive. Today, most students only learn how much aid they can get after colleges admit them. That’s an archaic practice in an American society defined by increased consumer choice and transparency. Further, the framework by which students are evaluated for aid must also evolve. We could get basically the same results with only two variables: adjusted gross income and number of individuals in the family.

In a November 2013 testimony to the Senate with Judith Scott-Clayton of Teachers College at Columbia and Kim Cook of the National College Access Network, we endorsed drafting a bill which automatically qualifies students receiving free and reduced school lunches for the maximum federal grant — enough to make community college free today in 45 states. This is the kind of clear message we know we can pay for. In fact, if these students could fill out the cumbersome FAFSA, they’d already qualify for the maximum grant. The fact that they don’t already do this just underscores the problem.

States and colleges, which use information from the federal application to allocate the hundreds of millions they spend on student aid, can trust that a simpler form will be just as good at identifying the nation’s neediest students. Less obvious, but no less important benefits would also include the liberation of armies of mentors and counselors who currently spend much of their time helping students complete aid forms rather than helping advise them to make smart, responsible decisions. Those education specialists can be much more effective guiding other aspects of the application process, such as ensuring students enroll in courses and degree pathways they can complete on-time.

These very features, openly embraced by members of both parties and encapsulated in last week’s Senate legislation, can make a major difference in advancing the scope and reach of college opportunity and affordability. Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, expected later this year, is vital — it will impact so many aspects of our system. But for many years, politicians have simply deferred all education policy to be included in that legislation, essentially delaying any progress.

After a decade of experimenting and studying this approach, we are confident that simplifying student aid is an incremental evolution that can deliver significant returns and improvements. In our constant quest to allow more Americans the opportunity to travel on the higher-education highway, fixing its on-ramp has to be a 2015 Washington priority.

Bridget Terry Long is a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education; Kristin Conklin is a partner at HCM Strategies.