“Sloppy” red tape requirements costing universities millions

Complicated FAFSAs

“Each year, 20 million American families fill out a complicated, 108-question form called the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to obtain a grant or loan to help pay for college,” explained Sen. Alexander in a statement. “Several experts testified before our committee that just two questions would tell the Department of Education 95 percent of what it needs to know to determine a student’s eligibility for a grant or loan: One, what is your family size? And, two, what is your family income?”

Based off of this testimony, a bipartisan group of six senators in January introduced legislation to try and simplify the student aid application and repayment process, including reducing the 108-question FAFSA form to just two questions.

“Most important, according to financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, the complicated, 108-question form discourages up to 2 million Americans each year from applying for aid,” emphasized Sen. Alexander. “Last fall, the president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis told me that the complex form turns 1,500 students away from his campus each semester.”

Tennessee has become the first state to make community college tuition-free for qualifying students. But first, each student must fill out the FAFSA. Now that tuition is free, the principal obstacle for a qualified Tennessee student to obtain two more years of education after high school is not money: it is the “unnecessarily complicated federal form,” he noted.

Admin time sucks

According to Sen. Alexander, surveys conducted in 2005 and 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences found that principal investigators spend 42 percent of their time associated with federal research projects on administrative tasks instead of research.

“I asked the head of the National Academies what a reasonable percent of time would be for a researcher to spend on administrative tasks. He replied: perhaps 10 percent or even less. How many billions could we save if we reduced the administrative burden?”

He also noted that, according to media reports, taxpayers spend more than $30 billion a year on research and development at colleges and universities.

“This year, the average annual cost of NIH research project grant ‎is $480,000. If we reduce spending on unnecessary red tape by $1 billion, the NIH could potentially fund more than a thousand multi-year grants,” said Sen. Alexander.

Why it’s not a party issue

The Senator explained that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, though they have contributed to the problem, are not the only ones at fault, since “every president and every education secretary—and that includes me—since 1965 when the first Higher Education Act was enacted [is partly to blame].”

“And the list of those embarrassed should also include the Congress of the United States for year after year adding to and tolerating a pile of conflicting, confusing regulations.”

The Higher Education Act totals nearly 1,000 pages, with over 1,000 pages in the official Code of Federal Regulations devoted to higher education. On average every workday, noted the Senator, the Department of Education issues one new sub-regulatory guidance directive or clarification.

“No one has taken the time to ‘weed the garden,’” he said. “The result of this piling up of regulations is that one of the greatest obstacles to innovation and cost consciousness in higher education has become—us, the federal government.”

(Next page: Can the problem be fixed?)

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