Many experts and politicians looking for wholesale higher education reform are wary of 2014, an election year for a number of congressional districts, as lawmakers on the campaign trail are less willing to take on ambitious legislation such as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
As a result, the prognosis isn’t good for the FAFSA Fairness Act of 2013, a bill proposed by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) in November that seeks to give students with a challenging home life easier access to financial aid. Experts said the bill is likely to be pushed aside amid a crowded legislative agenda caught up in partisan politics, though the legislation has its merits and support from lobbyists.
“Students who have left abusive homes, have been abandoned, have parents who are incarcerated, or who have other special circumstances that limit contact with their parents often find it difficult to apply for financial aid, and they sometimes abandon their goal of attending college instead of battling through a long and complicated process alone,” Cummings said in a statement. “This bill will help students in these circumstances by ensuring that our financial aid process is not an unintended barrier to college.”
Under current federal law, there are strict guidelines for students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid if they wish to be considered independent from their parents. But the definition of “independent” by current FAFSA standards is geared toward students who are married, on active duty in the military, orphaned or homeless and less toward those who are either abandoned by their parents or who come from a more challenging family background. Students who claim independence and don’t fit the FAFSA definition can have their applications rejected, though they have the option to go through a difficult process called a “dependency override” to prove they deserve exemptions.
Students will still have to prove financial independence under Cummings’ law, but they will be able to access a less stringent “provisional independence” category in which their potential financial aid packages are calculated before they have to go through the dependency override process at their respective colleges.
The expectation is that this additional category would “allow students to better understand their financial choices and would increase college enrollment as students would have more clarity when evaluating which college to attend,” according to a November news release by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The bill has won support from several higher education interest groups, such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Council for Opportunity in Education.
“By establishing a category of ‘provisional independence’ for financial aid applicants who have left home due to an abusive environment, are unable to locate their parents, have parents who are incarcerated, or who meet other conditions that prevent them from accessing parental financial information, this bill creates an easier pathway for these students to pursue the financial aid application process,” COE President Maureen Hoyler wrote in a letter to Cummings.
The current fate of the bill, as well as other potential higher education legislation still on the table at the federal level, is unknown, beholden to a Congress that has a hard time finding middle ground on several issues.
In a September interview with The Diamondback, David Imig, a university education professor, said addressing the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is something that could be pushed back to 2015, after the midterm election season, or as late as 2016.
“We don’t have a Ted Kennedy anymore who’s passionate about this,” Imig said in September.