Alexander column (2)


The U.S. Senate has just taken a big first step toward helping Tennesseans go to and pay for college.


The Senate unanimously passed legislation I introduced that would permanently fund Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – a complex federal form that 20 million families, including 8 million minority students, fill out every year to qualify for federal student aid.


It’s hard to think of a piece of legislation that will have more of a lasting impact on minority students and their families than this bill. Over two million minority students attend HBCUs and other minority serving institutions, and the $255 million in permanent federal funding in this proposal will give these institutions the resources needed to be successful.


In addition, after five years of bipartisan effort, this bill simplifies the FAFSA by stopping families from having to give their same tax information to the federal government twice – first to the IRS, then again to the U.S. Department of Education. Families give permission to the IRS and the Department of Education to share tax return data, which eliminates up to 22 questions on the FAFSA with one click.


It should eliminate most of the so-called “verification” process, which is a bureaucratic nightmare that 5.5 million students go through annually to make sure the information they gave to the Department of Education is exactly the same as they gave to the IRS. The president of East Tennessee State University recently told me that half the students applying to ETSU go through verification at some point.


And according to the Department of Education, it helps taxpayers by eliminating up to $6 billion each year in mistakes – both in overpayments and underpayments – in Pell grants and student loans.


This should help the 400,000 Tennesseans who fill out the FAFSA every year in order to take advantage of Tennessee Promise – a program that provides Tennessee students with two free years of community college. Tennessee is the first state in the country to make community college free, but, as former Governor Bill Haslam told me, one of the biggest obstacles to students taking advantage of Tennessee Promise is the complexity of the FAFSA. 


The FAFSA is 108 questions long and so complicated that it discourages many Americans from going to college.


Simplifying this form will remove many of the complex, bureaucratic barriers that prevent students from taking advantage of free community college in our state. 


This is important legislation that will help thousands of Tennessee families. I was glad the Senate passed my proposal, and I look forward to working with the House of Representatives to put it on President Trump’s desk to be signed into law.


Lamar Alexander has been a senior senator from Tennessee since 2003.

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