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November 13, 2014

An affordable approach to college

In November column, Michael discusses FAST Act

This fall, a familiar story for high school seniors and their parents is repeating itself across Colorado. From Sterling to Silverton, members of the class of 2015 are making some of their first major life decisions as college application deadlines approach. Which schools should I apply to? Should I stay home or move away? Is a vocational school right for me? Can I afford my top choice?

That last question has become more complicated than necessary. Financial aid - through scholarships, grants, and loans - makes college accessible and affordable for many families. In Colorado, hundreds of thousands of students rely on federal student aid every year.

Yet, in what has become a backward system, our high school seniors won't find out how much federal aid they are eligible to receive until well into their second semester. That makes cost and affordability decisions breathtakingly unclear as most college applications are due months earlier.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, and I have proposed a simple solution: Let families learn how much aid they can expect to receive during their junior year of high school. They'll be armed with one of the most useful pieces of information they will need at a critical point in their college search.

Our plan, the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act, is also known as the FAST Act.

Families applying for federal financial aid such as Pell grants and federal student loans are becoming familiar with the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's a lengthy 108-question form with dozens of pages of instructions - not exactly the most user-friendly form, but still a gateway to college affordability. Unfortunately, even after filling out the FAFSA, students usually don't find out what grants and loans they can take out until they've chosen where and whether to apply.

Students and their parents shouldn't have to wait on pins and needles to find out if they're going to receive enough aid to pay for college. They also shouldn't have to spend hours filling out a complicated form just to get to that point.

The FAST Act cuts through the red tape to streamline this whole process. In addition to providing families with financial aid eligibility a year earlier, it reduces the entire FAFSA form to two questions. Research tells us that simplifying the form will encourage more families to fill it out. It makes aid more predictable and will help encourage more students, as young as middle school, to pursue college. Students will access crucial aid they otherwise would have left on the table, which might be the difference between going to school and not applying at all.

Earlier this year we visited colleges and met with students across the state. We heard from students like Joshua Allard at Metro State who didn't learn he was eligible for a Pell grant until the end of the semester - a semester he wasn't sure he was going to be able to afford. Front Range Community College President Andy Dorsey told us one of the most common reasons they lose students is financial hardship - an obstacle that could be overcome with earlier notification of aid eligibility and a shorter form. We heard similar stories out of Pueblo Community College, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, University of Colorado-Denver, Community College of Denver, Colorado State University, and Colorado Mesa University.

It's a commonsense solution that will make college an option for more students. Families won't lose out on financial aid because they are deterred by the FAFSA's unnecessary length and complexity, and students will be able to make more informed decisions about their college choices.

In today's global economy, a college education is a prerequisite for many career paths. Reforming the FAFSA and financial aid process will help make college an option for more Coloradans. That means a stronger workforce, and a healthier, more competitive economy for all of us.

 


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