The US stimulus bill lowers one of the biggest barriers for low-income college students

US lawmakers signed a number of meaningful higher education measures.
US lawmakers signed a number of meaningful higher education measures.
Image: Reuters/Chip East
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Congress passed the $900 billion pandemic relief bill last night, providing long-awaited aid to Americans struggling in the pandemic. Though most of the interest has centered around the authorization of stimulus checks and emergency unemployment benefits, the legislation also is notable for clearing one of the biggest hurdles for low-income students to attend college.

One of the measures includes simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is the test that helps determine eligibility for financial assistance. Fafsa, which has been around since 1965, has long been seen as helping students’ postsecondary prospects. More than 13 million students a year in the US receive nearly $150 billion in financial aid through Fafsa. But a longtime concern with the program is that students who need it most are the least likely to access it.

Fafsa provides Pell grants—money that doesn’t have to be paid back—as well as scholarships, work-study programs, and federal loans. NerdWallet calculated that the high school graduating class of 2017 left $2.6 billion in grants on the table by failing to submit enough applications.

Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee and former president of the University of Tennessee, has long pushed to simplify the application for financial aid. As part of the new round of pandemic relief measures, lawmakers negotiated reducing the test from 108 questions to 36, with many of the answers able to be automatically filled from tax filings. The simplifications “will remove the biggest barrier to helping more low-income students pursue higher education,” Alexander said in a press statement.

In a letter to congressional leaders on Dec. 3, the head of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators wrote that low-income students complete the Fafsa “at a rate 7 percentage points lower than their higher-income peers.”

The Fafsa application for the 2020-2021 school year became available Oct. 1. Early data show the completion is down 13.5% versus last year. The long, complex financial form has long been seen as a barrier for first-generation college students who aren’t used to filling out the form.

Covid-19 has thrown the future for colleges, and for the college plans of individual students, in doubt. The pandemic has in some cases eliminated the need to submit SAT or ACT scores, but it also has created a financial burden for many families, prompted cancelations of planned college visits, and eliminated sessions on college counseling or financial aid. Submissions of the common application, which is used by hundreds of US schools, are down 8% through Nov. 2 compared to last year, according to Inside Higher Ed. Meanwhile, college enrollment had been on the decline even before the pandemic.

The pandemic relief bill includes other meaningful higher education measures, such as reinstating Pell grants for qualified incarcerated students as well as providing $1 billion in loan forgiveness for historically Black colleges and universities. But not included in the bill is an extension of student loan relief, which is set to expire January.