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Measure Would Help Low-Income Students Apply For College Financial Aid

NOEL KING, HOST:

The process of applying for financial aid is really complicated, and every year, millions of students, and sometimes their parents, have to figure it out. There is an act called the FUTURE Act which has passed in Congress, and it makes that process simpler. President Trump just needs to sign it. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has the story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: If you've ever applied to college or helped a friend or family member, you've probably encountered the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The point of the FUTURE Act is to make that process a lot easier for students.

JUSTIN DRAEGER: This piece of legislation is one giant step forward.

NADWORNY: That's Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. The FUTURE Act cuts down the number of questions on the FAFSA, and despite concerns about privacy, it allows the IRS to share data with the Education Department, so you don't have to submit that information in your taxes and then again when you're applying to college.

DRAEGER: Not only helps people apply for financial aid more easily, it also prevents schools from having to constantly follow up with them to verify the information that they submitted on their FAFSA because they'll already have it from the IRS.

NADWORNY: It's meant to help students like Whitney Brown.

WHITNEY BROWN: I am paving my way through uncharted territories.

NADWORNY: Brown is a junior at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she's studying criminology. She relies on federal aid - loans and a Pell Grant - to help pay for school. And she's the first in her family to go.

BROWN: You know, it's a building of a legacy. You understand that you're doing it first. And, yes, it's going to be hard, but there's going to be so many more people that come after you that it's not going to be difficult for, so it's very much so worth it.

NADWORNY: And things were going OK. She filled out her FAFSA each year. She's a student leader, and she has great grades. But then this fall, she got an email. It said she had been randomly flagged to verify her income on the FAFSA.

BROWN: I was going back-and-forth with the school servicing center understanding, like, what I need, how to submit the information.

NADWORNY: It was a long, drawn-out process. The Education Department does this because they want to make sure that that money is going to the right people.

DRAEGER: And it's a process that creates a lot of confusion for students and a lot of work for colleges and universities.

NADWORNY: Justin Draeger says the Education Department doesn't release how many people are verified, but his organization estimates that about 30% of Pell Grant recipients are selected for verification. And research has shown that getting verified - it rarely changes the amount of aid you get.

DRAEGER: Often, the most vulnerable populations are stuck in the unenviable position of having to prove over and over again to multiple agencies that they're poor.

NADWORNY: Brown was juggling all the back-and-forth on paperwork on top of assignments and midterms. The process dragged on, and since she hadn't been officially verified, that meant she never got her financial aid. And because she owed the university money, she couldn't register for classes or secure housing for the spring.

BROWN: So to know that I was - you know, set myself up in good standing to go to such a prestigious school and be able to pay for it and that this one process is going to end it all, it just felt kind of unfair.

NADWORNY: Whitney's still waiting to get verified. But in the meantime, she's fundraised and applied to emergency grants and scholarships. Just this week, she had enough money to register for classes.

BROWN: Like, if I didn't have the support that I do have, then I wouldn't be in school.

NADWORNY: The data agreement that would help students like Brown could also help folks enrolled in income-driven repayment options, paying down their federal student loans. Those plans require you to verify your income each year. The FUTURE Act makes the government agencies do it for you. All this simplification is estimated to save the government $2.8 billion over 10 years. And that makes it possible to provide permanent federal funding for historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.