Lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday that would force federal education officials to simplify the paperwork for students seeking college aid money.
The College Aid Made EZ Act is intended to streamline completion of the government's Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA. Students must fill out the application to qualify for most grants or loans, including aid offered by colleges and by state institutions.
Critics say the form is so daunting -- 100 questions over five pages, with three pages of instructions -- that many students and their families avoid filling one out, even though they may be eligible for assistance.
"It is ridiculous that major companies can fill out a 13-question form to apply for million-dollar loans, but students and parents must answer over 100 questions to apply for college financial assistance," Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said during a conference call with reporters.
Department of Education officials have said they're happy to simplify, but current aid formulas require the requested information. The agency has been working with a task force to revamp the application, but the efforts have been stalled because some changes would alter the aid formula. Such adjustments require an act of Congress.
The bill sponsored by Miller and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) has two key elements.
First, it would create an abbreviated aid application form for low-income parents, who earn less than $20,000 annually or who already qualify for other government aid programs, such as the earned income tax credit or food stamps.
This form would eliminate all questions about income and assets, which the sponsors claim are repetitive when another segment of the government has already determined that the family is in need.
If passed, that portion of the bill would go into effect as soon as the Department of Education was able to cobble together a new "FAFSA-EZ" form, according to congressional aides.
The second part of the bill aims to abbreviate and simplify the application form for everyone else. The Department of Education would have five years to shorten the application by half, to no more than 50 questions.
The bill does not specify how this would be accomplished. But Miller said that he endorsed an idea by the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit student advocacy group, which would allow the Internal Revenue Service to share information with the Department of Education, at parents' request.
Although no studies have quantified the number of students failing to claim aid because of the complicated application, experts contend that anecdotal evidence abounds. Among the most compelling: A study of students enrolled in college in 2004 found that of the millions of students qualified for Pell Grants -- the most generous federal scholarship program -- 1.5 million had not applied.
The federal aid application "is the gateway for the scholarships, grants, loans and work-study assistance that make it possible for millions of students to attend college," said J.B. Schramm, chief executive of College Summit, a nonprofit organization that assists low-income students in applying for aid. "But its complexity discourages far too many students from applying."
Emanuel said a fireman in his neighborhood complained that he had attempted to complete the form three times but had given up in frustration. The pain of filling out the form is not a one-time event either. It must be re-done each year that a student applies for aid.
Lauren Asher, associate director of the Institute for College Access & Success, said nearly one-third of the questions on the application form come directly from annual tax filings on the IRS form 1040. Under her group's proposal, parents could give the Department of Education approval to get their tax information directly from the IRS. That would eliminate the need to fill out these questions.
The IRS already is able to provide tax returns to lenders and others, when the taxpayer requests it, she added. This would simply give the Department of Education access to the information -- and immensely simplify the aid application process. The information could be shared electronically, reducing the chance for error, she said.
"Everything is in place to do this, but it requires some testing to make sure that it works," Asher said.
Bad news for parents: There's no estimate on when the changes might occur, if at all.