Betsy DeVos is attempting to catapult the Department of Education into the 21st century with a push to modernize the federal aid application process.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form will be rolled into a new format — a no-charge app widely available to any prospective applicant with access to a mobile device — if Secretary of Education DeVos and her department succeed in their newest idea.
DeVos framed the announcement to student aid experts in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday, as a paramount innovation in breaking down barriers that recipients face in the often daunting process of applying for need-based aid.
“The next generation system will be the most significant change to the student aid process ... ever,” DeVos said.
She hopes the customer experience within the app would “rival Amazon or Apple’s Genius Bar” by integrating a direct-to-expert text chat feature for students confused by certain parts of the application process.
James Dewey-Rosenfeld, Dean of Undergraduate Admission at the Catholic University of America, told IJR he sees the app as a slam dunk for students and their families, “especially in a process that is already complicated and stressful.”
“If we could simplify the process and get every student who is potentially eligible for need-based aid to be able to file, you're talking about students being able to see a real financial picture [of their education] over the next four years instead of it being a huge guessing game,” Dewey-Rosenfeld said.
Dewey-Rosenfeld clarified he doesn't expect a serious uptick in enrollment just yet, though he seems confident the mobile app will dismantle barriers that limit some students from attending their university of choice.
Though some officials propose the major deterrent to FAFSA lies within the application itself, not the way potential candidates can access it.
One student affairs officer at a university in Washington, D.C., said he's worried a mobile app could cause more concerns rather than inspire clarity.
“It's really detrimental to lower-income students” if they enter wrong information, he said, explaining that universities would anticipate “a lot of uncertainty” from their FAFSA applications.
The official noted that many students look to hire help when completing the lengthy forms, similar to how many individuals seek help during tax season. He worried that a mobile form to be done in a single sitting could encourage inaccurate or rushed entry. Small data mistakes could have serious implication on a student's financial security.
“If it's just the same questions in a different format, I don't think it lessens any burdens at all,” he said.
A former senior policy adviser to the Obama administration, Clare McCann, shared a more cautious optimism about the Department of Education's new plan.
McCann, who now serves as the deputy director for Federal Policy at New America, explained the design — while encouraging — is a wildly ambitious project the department will have to attack “a bite at a time.”
The plan would mark one of the first proactive moves from the Trump administration in furthering — rather than slashing — an initiative laid by his predecessor, a heartening sign to McCann that education will be a top-billed priority heading into the new year.
Though she warned the new app is not a catch-all for progress.
“It's not a silver bullet solution,” she explained to IJR. “There are a lot of problems that can only be fixed by Congress, like reducing the number of questions and allowing the IRS to relay earnings directly to the department.”
Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), also stressed that “ultimate simplification” lies within the hands of Congress.
And two senators are attempting to do just that.
Just this week. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) announced a bipartisan bill in the works to alter the number of required questions from 108 to 25 — a cut of about 70 percent.
During a hearing to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee Tuesday, Sen. Alexander explained his legislation would also expedite much of the FAFSA process by auto-populating tax data given to the federal government into the student's application. He marked the proposal as a much needed kick to Congress.
This is not the first crack both senators took at pushing the Capitol toward FAFSA reform, though.
Back in January 2015, Alexander and Bennet co-sponsored a bill, along with Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Angus King (I-Maine), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), to further simplify FAFSA.
The Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act boiled FAFSA down to just two questions:
- What is your family size?
- What was your household income two years ago?
It never made it past the introduction phase.
Still, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee continues to fight for change.
“I welcome this announcement from Secretary DeVos to make it easier for students to fill out their FAFSAs," Sen. Alexander said. "After four years of Congressional discussions on how to simplify [FAFSA], it is time to come to a result to make it easier for students to apply for federal financial aid.”
As it stands, there are currently three FAFSA filing options: An online form, a PDF form that must be mailed for processing, or a paper form that must be obtained by calling several 1-800 numbers.
The PDF FAFSA for the 2018-2019 school year is 10 pages, contains over 100 questions, and requires a student's social security number or alien registration number, federal income tax returns, W-2s, bank statements, and records of investments, records of untaxed income and an FSA ID.
Draeger said the current student takes upward of 30 minutes to apply for the federal aid program.
He also noted the proposed app will be most beneficial in terms of accessibility, not necessarily regarding the quickness of filing.
“There's a lot of simplicity built in it today that relies on technology,” Draeger told IJR. “Changing this to a mobile app can use the same technology and hopefully make things simpler for students.”
FSA's chief operating officer projects an April rollout for the mobile application, according to reports from Inside Higher Ed.
Experts, however, remain skeptical about the reality of that rollout date.