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FAFSA might be easier in the future

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a lengthy annual responsibility for some applicants, but six senators are out to tackle what can be a tedious task with a new bipartisan bill that proposes to simplify the FAFSA programs and application process.

Senators Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., with others, presented the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act on Jan. 7. It would simplify the FAFSA online form by reducing the 108-question form to two questions that could fit on a postcard: “What is your family size?” and “What was your household income two years ago?”

Bennet’s communication director Adam Bozzi said the “Student Aid Short Form,” which is the name of the proposed new form, is a good first step for the government to help students and their families frustrated with the process.

“I think people want to see a system that is easier to understand (and) easier to access so that more students can have the opportunity and the access to school,” Bozzi said.

An institution like Ohio State that provides federal aid is required by federal regulation to obtain information that verifies if a student is financially dependent or independent, if they’re enrolled in the Selective Service (for male students) and if they have had a past drug conviction. The answers to these questions could affect students’ eligibility to receive a federal/state grant.

Even though a two-question form shortens the length of the application, OSU’s executive director of student financial aid Diane Stemper said there is concern as to how the Student Aid Short Form could logistically collect enough information to allocate the federal aid properly.

“So the question then becomes, if you have postcards for the FAFSA, if we still have to gather (more detailed personal) information, would we still end up creating a second application for students? I don’t think anyone wants to go in that direction,” said Stemper.

The secondary application that OSU would hypothetically use would allow the university to collect more information to award state and institutional grant money, Stemper said.

But Bozzi said the Student Aid Short Form’s two-question format is not fixed, and that other questions might be added in the future if necessary.

“What we’re willing to do is kind of sit down and work with this again, and if we find out that there is another question that we need to add or a couple more, we’re happy to,” Bozzi said.

In an op-ed for The New York Times authored by Alexander and Bennet, the senators said a study done by a professor at the University of Michigan and an assistant professor at Columbia University demonstrated that eliminating 90 percent of the application’s questions would have a minimal effect on the average Pell Grant amount awarded to students, only changing it by $54 a year.

Pell Grants are direct grants awarded to students with financial need who have not received a bachelor’s degree, according to the FAFSA website.

The maximum amount for the Federal Pell Grant nationally for the 2014-15 award year, which goes from July 2014 to June 2015, was $5,730, according to the FAFSA website.

A total of $310 million was awarded to 33,165 OSU students, including loans and federal work-study, during the 2014-15 award year, Stemper said in an email.

Kevin Schwartz, a first-year in communication, said he’s not a fan of the proposed bill.

“It’s ridiculous, just because you can’t analyze with that little data somebody’s situation, a living situation, personal situation (or) what other expenses they need for living,” he said.

Schwartz said he was short on aid this school year and had to apply for additional loans.

The FAST Act also outlines a plan to consolidate grants and loan programs and simplify repayment options to make the two FAFSA grants — one need-based and the other merit-based — programs into one, and the six current loan programs into three.

First-year international student Hussain Hamid Rashid Al Zerjawi, who currently attends Columbus State Community College but plans to transfer to OSU, said he’s surprised by the cost of U.S. colleges and the amount of student debt and loans.

“It’s not worth it anymore. I think back then in the States, in the ‘50s, a bachelor’s degree was something very special like, ‘Oh wow, he’s a graduate, he went to university.’ But now even if you have a diploma, you have to struggle to pay your loans afterwards,” Al Zerjawi said.

In 2013, the average loans incurred by graduates from public and nonprofit Ohio colleges was $29,090, which is slightly above the national student loan debt average of $28,400, according to the Institute for College Success and Access.

The FAST act would also allow students to learn how much federal aid they qualify for during their junior year in high school instead of during the second half of their senior year.

Bozzi said so far, the response to the bill has been positive.

“I think overall, the response has been great,” he said. “As far as all the other pieces that we’re streamlining and simplifying, I think we’ve heard good reactions to that.”

Bozzi could not say when a decision would be made on whether or not to pass the FAST act, but said he hopes the bill will move forward by spring.

Clarification: Jan. 16, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the ways the reporter communicated with Diane Stemper.

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