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Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I recently spoke to Senate interns regarding the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act. I ask unanimous consent that my full speech be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act

Thank you for coming. We know it's the pizza more than anything else that brought you here, but to some extent it may be the dreaded federal student application form. What we would like to do today is tell you a story. We will call this a ``teaching moment.'' I think that may have been Senator Bennet's phrase, but it is a teaching moment for you as to how legislation is supposed to work in the United States Senate. And I think it may be a teaching moment for senators, about how to do our jobs.

We are going to tell you a story of how we got to where we are and tell you what our proposal is. And then we are going to invite the experts to tell us what kind of students we senators have been in terms of listening to them and then coming up with something. Then we will ask you what you think. Then we are going to put this out for our committee on which we serve, which Senator Harkin is the chairman of, which is working on the reauthorization of Higher Education with our colleagues to see if we can get co-sponsors and make a difference in something. So what I will do is begin the story, and I will just take a few minutes. Then I will turn it over to Senator Bennet, and he will tell you more about exactly what the proposal is. First, let me introduce the three experts: Ms. Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, Dr. Judith Scott-Clayton, assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, and Ms. Kristin Conklin, founding partner at HCM Strategists, LLC.

Here's why they are here. Several months ago at one of the hearings of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, those three, and one other, who is from Harvard Graduate School of Education, testified before us. I am down on the Republican side and Michael is on the Democratic side. It looked to me like we had the same reaction, because they were talking about this federal student application form, which is 106 questions, with 68 pages of explanations that you have to fill out every year you apply for a grant or a loan.

It gets audited during the year, and, of course, you would probably make a mistake on one of those questions, so you might not get your money. It is so discouraging to people who apply for it that many who should do not. One of the community college representatives said that a quarter of the community college students do not even fill out the form, and they are probably the ones who we most want to have the opportunity to do that.

So what we heard the four say was you could eliminate all those questions except two and get 90 or 95 percent of all of the information that you need.

Of course I am the first one to wonder, ``Is that just a bizarre outlier? Is that just one witness with a weird proposal?'' But every single one of the four said that. Then they went on to make some other very common sense recommendations about being able to fill it out earlier in your high school year, suggestions about over-borrowing, about simplifying the loan and student repayment process--all of which made a lot of sense.

So, at the end of the hearing, I said, ``Would four of you please write a letter to us on the things that you agree with?'' By the time I got down to see them, they said, ``We won't write you four letters, we'll write you one.'' So they did.

Michael and I began working together to see if we could take their recommendations and put it in a piece of legislation. In doing that, we wanted to show the proper respect to our colleagues, so we let our chairman, Senator Harkin, know about it. We mentioned it to Arne Duncan, so he would know what we are doing, because we would like in the end to have Republican support, and the president's support, and the House of Representatives' support. We are not here to make a political point. We are here to get a result. And then we thought about what would be the best way to introduce it. Senator Bennet said, ``Why don't we invite the interns to come over for lunch? Why don't we lay it out to them? Why don't we ask the experts who suggested it to us what they think?''

Next week, then, we will introduce it and see what is going on and how we can improve it over the next few weeks. And then maybe when you fill out the form in your next year of college, it will be the size of a postcard instead of the size of that. That thing takes, if you add it up, 20 million students filling that out every year, and the form itself says it takes at least three hours. If you add up the amount of money and time spent on that, you get into billions of hours wasted, you get into hundreds of millions of dollars that might be spent on construction, instead of hiring staff people at the college to help you fill these things out. You might encourage a lot more people, who are eligible and who need the money, to get the surest step toward improving their lives.

Of course, the College Board says that a college four-year degree is worth a million dollars in increased earnings over your lifetime. It is one sure ticket to a better life that we know about. Finally, I want to say that it has been a great pleasure to work with Michael. I am a pretty good Republican, he's a pretty good Democrat, but that does not make any difference. The reason we are here is that the Senate is a place where you are supposed to have extended debate about important subjects until you come to a consensus, and then you get a result. That is the way you govern a complex country. So what we hope is that this is just a small example of one part of the Higher Education reauthorization process that will help make life simpler.

Michael, there is one other thing that I should say. You may ask, how did this happen? How did this long thing happen? It wasn't any evil-doer who did it. What happened was the Higher Education Act was authorized in 1965. In my opinion, what happened was it got reauthorized eight times by different groups of senators and congressman, different group of regulators wrote things. People had good, well-intentioned ideas and after that [process], you get that. So what we are doing is starting from scratch to try to turn 106 questions into a postcard and get the money where it should go, to the eligible students who want to go to college.

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