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Congress Poised To Simplify FAFSA, And Help People In Prison Go To College

In a bipartisan effort, Congress is close to a deal to simplify the federal financial aid form, or FAFSA, a major policy goal of retiring Republican senator Lamar Alexander.
Samuel Corum
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In a bipartisan effort, Congress is close to a deal to simplify the federal financial aid form, or FAFSA, a major policy goal of retiring Republican senator Lamar Alexander.

U.S. lawmakers have announced an agreement on a handful of higher education measures that would provide meaningful help to marginalized students, students of color and many of the schools that serve them. The aid is part of a broad new set of legislation, meant to fund the federal government through fiscal year 2021. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the proposed changes this week.

"This bipartisan agreement is a significant step toward making higher education more affordable for millions of Americans," Rep. Bobby Scott, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee, said in a statement Sunday night.

The higher education measures include further simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), discharging federal loans given to help historically black colleges and universities pay for campus improvements, expanding the Pell Grant program for low-income college students and restoring Pell Grant eligibility for would-be students who are incarcerated.

Here's a closer look at what lawmakers say they have negotiated:

A shorter FAFSA

This move will be the latest in a series of efforts in recent years to make the FAFSA less of an obstacle. The 108-question form is required for any student who wants help paying for college. This latest round of changes would shorten the form by removing dozens of questions that don't apply to most students and that may confuse borrowers who don't have help filling it out. The deal also expands outreach, to help at-risk students complete the form.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, has long advocated for making the FAFSA easier.

"After nearly seven years of work, Congress and the President will simplify federal student aid for 20 million families who fill out these unnecessarily complicated forms every year," Alexander said in a statement Sunday night. "Reducing the FAFSA from 108 questions to 36 will remove the biggest barrier to helping more low-income students pursue higher education."

In a Dec. 3 letter to congressional leaders, Justin Draeger, head of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, wrote that low-income students complete the FAFSA at a rate 7 percentage points lower than their higher-income peers and that "the timing for FAFSA simplification could not be more urgent... with FAFSA completions among high school seniors currently down 15% compared to this time last year."

Canceling HBCU debt

In 2018, a review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that nearly half of all historically black colleges and universities' building space was in need of either repair or replacement. The HBCU Capital Financing Program was designed to give these schools "access to capital financing or refinancing for the repair, renovation, and construction of classrooms, libraries, laboratories, dormitories, instructional equipment, and research instrumentation," according to the Department of Education. For example, in October, Morgan State University, a prominent HBCU in Baltimore, borrowed nearly $70 million to build a new dining hall and help pay for a new, 670-bed dorm.

Under this new agreement, Congress would cancel all remaining debt obligations stemming from the roughly 80 outstanding loans made through the program, benefitting more than 40 HBCUs to the tune of more than $1 billion.

Expanding Pell Grants

The federal Pell Grant program was meant to help low-income students pay for college without having to rely solely on loans. For the 2020-2021 award year, students who qualify can receive a maximum grant of $6,345 — money that does not need to be paid back. But student advocates have argued that the formula for calculating Pell eligibility, which depends on a student's "Expected Family Contribution," is too complex and makes it difficult to know how much help a student will get before they fill out the FAFSA.

Under this new compromise, Pell eligibility would be simpler to predict and pegged to federal poverty guidelines. The hope is, if it's clearer to potential students that they'll qualify for upwards of $6,000 in Pell aid, they'll be more likely to complete the FAFSA. According to Nerdwallet, the high school class of 2018 missed out on $2.6 billion in Pell Grants because they didn't complete the FAFSA.

The proposed change would not only expand the pool of students who apply for and benefit from the Pell program, it would also make the program itself more generous.

According to a statement from Alexander, the expansion would "enable an additional 555,000 students qualify for Pell grants each year; and enable an additional 1.7 million students qualify to receive the maximum Pell grant award each year."

Reinstating Pell Grants for people in prison

For the past 26 years, one sentence in federal lawhas withheld federal Pell Grants from the nearly 1.5 million people in state and federal prison. The proposed change would strike this line from the law, and allow incarcerated people eligibility to use federal dollars to pay for college while in prison. This change was already approved by the U.S. House in July.

The ban stems from the 1994 crime bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Without that federal funding, higher education programs in prisons began to disappear. That's despite research that's shown education to be one of the most cost-effective ways to keep people from returning to prison once they're released. The Vera Institute of Justice estimates restoring Pell for inmates would open the grant up to about half a million people-- and there's growing interest among higher education providers to once again offer credentials and classes to incarcerated people.

Over the last three years about 17,000 people have enrolled in higher ed classes while in prison, according to the Vera Institute. That's thanks to a pilot program, started by the Obama administration, called Second Chance Pell. The program made Pell Grants available to a handful of college-in-prison programs across the country, and has won the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.