Bill simplifies FAFSA, widens aid eligibility

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On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, introduced a bill that would simplify the financial aid application process and broaden students’ eligibility.

“Many of the questions on the FAFSA are burdensome and complicated, focusing on financial assets and incredibly detailed information to which most students do not have easy access,” Doggett said in an email.

According to a press release Tuesday, the bill would automatically qualify families with less than $30,000 in annual income for the entire Pell Grant, which awards undergraduates more than $5,000 a school year. It would also allow filers to use tax return information accepted on past FAFSA applications, which would eliminate the need to find that information year after year. 

Previously, FAFSA used the Data Retrieval Tool to collect required tax return information from two years back for a new application. Tax return information is needed in providing a student’s parent’s financial information to see if they qualify for financial aid. They issued a statement March 9 that it would temporarily suspend the DRT because the agency said the it could be misused by thieves.

Financial Aid director Diane Sprague said the financial aid office received several calls from students when DRT was suspended. The tool is still not accessible.

“(Without the DRT) it is a much more timely process, and that opens the record up to error and potentially having to be verified,” Sprague said. 

Sociology junior Dan Krasnicki said his father makes on average $20,000 from social security money because he is retired. Krasnicki said he was nervous about filing the application incorrectly.

“My roommate who graduated had given me a lot of help,” Krasnicki said. “As a lower-income person, you’re not necessarily aware of all the resources that are available or how to take advantage of them.”

The current threshold to qualify for the Pell Grant is $23,000, but an employee said the bill would change it back to $30,000 as it was in 2011, to qualify more lower-income families. Krasnicki said he would not be able to go to college without the Pell Grant.

“I think this is one of the rare times in life where it might behoove you to have less money ’cause you do qualify for more,” Krasnicki said. “I know some people who are right on the line where their parents made two, three-thousand dollars more than where the limit is.”

The bill would allow families with federal means assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to bypass questions which do not apply to them to complete the form faster.

Doggett’s office worked with College Forward, a nonprofit organization which helps lower-income students fill out FAFSA. Austin Buchan, College Forward’s CEO, said the organization serves families who need to prove eligibility while being on federal assistance programs.

“Our students who are already on federal assistance programs are having to prove their low-income status by virtue of qualifying for those programs,” Buchan said. “So this is just an easy way to streamline picking up that data.”