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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education

Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Time right for changes in college access, IU expert says

July 14, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The White House will likely succeed in simplifying the application for financial aid and in other measures aimed at increasing access to higher education, according to an Indiana University expert on issues of college choice, student financial aid policy, enrollment management and higher education finance.

Don Hossler, IU School of Education executive associate dean and professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, said many of the proposals put forward by the Obama administration mirror recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel, on which he served, that examined access issues.

Hossler was part of the group empaneled by The College Board called "Rethinking Student Aid," which issued a final report last fall ( "It is urgent that we diminish the bureaucratic hurdles, the information barriers, and the financial restrictions facing young people and adults aspiring to improve their prospects through postsecondary education," the report stated.

The White House has proposed several reforms, including simplifying the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), one of the commission's primary recommendations. Congress is expected to take up the administration's proposals as soon as next week.

"The FAFSA's become so complicated that people almost have to hire a tax consultant to fill them out," Hossler said. "For low-income families, just not knowing how to fill it out becomes a barrier to entering and completing college."

Hossler said the commission suggested eliminating many of the questions on the FAFSA and tying some information to federal tax forms, both White House recommendations.

The White House agenda for college affordability includes asking every American to commit to at least a year of higher education or career training, expanding Pell Grants and college tax credits, expanding the Perkins Loan program, creating a new federal, state, and local partnership for providing loans to disadvantaged students, and helping families save for college. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education Committee, said he plans to introduce a bill this week to replace federally subsidized bank loans with direct federal lending. The Obama administration says the savings from that move would go into the Pell Grant program.

"Everything I read suggests simplification is going to go through Congress," Hossler said, adding that such a proposal is most assured of passage since it would cost little or no money to pass this legislation. But he adds that even more costly measures, such as expanding grant availability, have a chance because of the timing. "The Rethinking Student Aid Group had this sense that our proposals had to be expenditure neutral," he said. "I think what's happened right now -- in the midst of stimulus and even though deficits are getting larger -- the door is open for the moment. It is actually more open for things than we thought when the group was meeting."

Reform is important for the potential college-going population of the next couple of decades, Hossler said. "We are going to see a dramatic increase in the number of recent immigrants, mostly first-generation, mostly from low-income families, graduating from high school," he said. "If we don't adjust some of these policies, we're going to lose the potential of a substantial number of people who could go on to college and help to sustain and enhance our economy. From a social justice point as well as an economic competitiveness point of view, we're as a country going to take some hits if we don't get some of these things right."

Media Outlets: the following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Website at Look for this news release under "News" on the home page. The sound bites below will have a clickable link to hear and to save the files.

Hossler says a clear way to increase chances for low-income families seeking financial aid is to simplify the application form:

"The FAFSA's become so complicated that people almost have to hire a tax consultant to fill them out, and for low-income families, just not knowing how to fill it out becomes a barrier to completing college."

Increasing access is important, Hossler says, because the nation needs to increase the percentage of the growing immigrant population seeking higher education:

"If we can increase it by 10 or 15 or 20 percent, it's going to be the right thing to do from a social justice point of view and it's going to be the right thing to do for the nation because we're not going to have, as a proportion of high school graduates, we're not going to have any middle, upper-income students going through the pipeline as a proportion of the group for the next 15 or 20 years."

Hossler said he'd like to see a better effort at providing more information early on to low-income families about financial aid for college:

"The Rethinking Student Aid group recommended that the Department of Ed get IRS data and on the basis of IRS data start telling, as soon as you have a dependent, if you are a low income family, based on IRS data, the family get a statement that says, 'based on your current income if your son or daughter were to go to college at this time, this is how much federal financial aid they would be eligible for.'"