Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Reed Introduces Bills to Expand Access to College and Increase Federal Investment in Financial Aid
WASHINGTON, DC - In an effort to help more students from working families afford the rising cost of a college education and simplify the process of applying for financial aid, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) today introduced the Accessing College through Comprehensive Early Outreach and State Partnerships (ACCESS) Act and the Financial Aid Form Simplification and Access (FAFSA) Act. Both bills are cosponsored by Senators Susan M. Collins (R-ME), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The ACCESS Act would authorize $500 million in federal grant funding to spur states to provide more students with need-based financial aid. Senator Reed's FAFSA Act would make it easier for more students to qualify for financial assistance and simplify the application process. FAFSA is a form that must be filled out in order for students to get federal financial assistance such as grants, loans, and work-study jobs. "These bipartisan bills will help put college within reach for more deserving students," said Reed, a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). "With college tuitions skyrocketing over the last decade, we must take important steps to lower financial barriers, eliminate student debt, and help more families prepare to bear the cost of college tuition." The ACCESS Act builds on the success of the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership (LEAP) program by forging a new federal incentive for states to form partnerships with businesses, colleges, and non-profit organizations to provide low-income students with increased need-based grant aid, early information and assurance of aid eligibility (beginning in middle school), and early intervention, mentoring, and outreach services. Research has shown that college access programs that combine these elements are successful in making the dream of higher education a reality. Students participating in such programs are more financially and academically prepared, and thus, more likely to enroll in college and persist to degree completion. "Since 1972, the federal-state partnership embodied by LEAP, with modest federal support, has helped leverage state grant aid to low-and moderate-income students. Without this important federal incentive, many states would never have established need-based financial aid programs, and many states would not continue to maintain such programs," noted Reed. "Last year, states matched approximately $65 million in federal LEAP funds with over $840 million in supplemental need-based aid. In Rhode Island, federal investment of approximately $350,000 in LEAP funds spurred the state to expend over $13 million in need-based aid." With an estimated 12,000 Rhode Island students graduating high school this year, the FAFSA Act will simplify the financial aid process for low-income students by raising the Automatic-Zero Expected Family Contribution threshold to $30,000 and aligning its eligibility with the standards for other federal means-tested programs (such as school lunch, SSI, Food Stamps). The bill calls for the creation of a short, paper Free Application for Federal Student Aid (EZ-FAFSA) for low-income students, as well as a tailored web-based application form to ensure that all students and their parents answer only the questions needed to determine financial aid eligibility in the state in which they reside. Students who do not have web access will be able to use a free tele-file system for filing by phone. "Applying for college can be a stressful and daunting task. We should make the process of applying for financial aid as simple and streamlined as possible," said Reed. "The FAFSA Act will take some of the guess work out of the process and give more students the opportunity to complete financial applications earlier and receive early estimates of aid eligibility." Reed's FAFSA Act would also create a pilot program to test an early application system under which participating students would complete a FAFSA and receive an aid estimate in their junior year of high school, subject only to a later short update of information in the student's senior year. The pilot program directs the Secretary of Education study the feasibility, benefits, and adverse effects of utilizing information from the IRS in order to simplify the financial aid process, including pre-populating the electronic FAFSA and implementing a data-match. "In 2008 we will see the largest number of students in our history graduating from high school. We have to be ready for them, not just in terms of preparing them academically, but ready to provide the financial aid they will need to go off to college. Over the last several years the Bush Administration has shortchanged Pell grants and other programs to help low- and middle-income students afford college. We've got to do better. Our future depends on it," concluded Reed. Both bills are supported by a range of higher education and student groups, including the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the National Association of College Admission Counseling, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the United States Student Association, and the College Parents of America.