Media coverage of the “stimulus bill” passed by Congress and signed by the President last week often obscured the fact that the legislation was actually an omnibus budget bill that addressed government-wide spending and policy. Of particular note for current and aspiring Allan Hancock College students was language tucked into the higher education section of the spending bill that will simplify and expand federal financial aid programs.
Parents and students who have attempted to tackle the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will attest to the burdensome nature of the application that not only provides eligibility for Pell Grants and student loans, but also is used by many institutions (including Allan Hancock College) to assess eligibility for other financial aid programs.
Starting with the high school class of 2023, the number of questions required to complete the FAFSA will drop from a daunting 108 to a maximum of 36. The new legislation also streamlines data entry by fully implementing an automatic system allowing students to import financial data from IRS records rather than hand-enter data from tax forms and eliminates assets as part of the calculation. The goal: a simplified process that encourages more families to apply and reduces the widely mistaken perception regarding eligibility.
While the simplified application is welcome (and long overdue) news, the new language also expands full Pell eligibility to an additional 1.7 million students each year and partial eligibility to hundreds of thousands more. The current FAFSA process assumes a narrow set of family structures and assumes most students live in more traditional arrangements. Beginning in 2023-24, students completing the FAFSA will receive a “student aid index” number (SAI) that measures a student’s ability to pay for college. Students will qualify for the full Pell Grant ($6,495 per year) if they live with married parents who are earning less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level. Independent students and students from single-parent households where income is less than 225 percent of the federal poverty level will also receive full grants. At current levels, that means a student living in four-person households with adjusted gross income below $46,000 will be eligible for a full award. As income rises, the award amount drops, but still fulfills the original goal of the Pell Grant to support working- and middle-class families pursuing undergraduate education.
The expansion of benefits will provide a new lifeline to many students, including those who were defrauded by predatory for-profit colleges that made grand promises to students; actions serving as little more than schemes to funnel tax dollars and student tuition to shareholders. The new law makes permanent a successful pilot program that awarded Pell Grants to incarcerated students – supporting the single most effective program to reduce recidivism.
Congressional inertia has prevented full reauthorization of the Higher Education Act for more than seven years. In spite of the data that show educational attainment increases civic engagement and bolsters economic growth, states and the federal government have systemically defunded higher education over the past three decades and left too many on the outside looking in. I have hope that this new legislation is a recognition of the fact that undergraduate education is a common societal good.