Bill Would Expand Student Aid to More Low-Income Students

By Rosa M. García

This week, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the “Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act” that would streamline the financial aid process by making it easier for more low-income students to apply—and qualify—for federal student aid. As college costs continue to rise, Congress must work to make a postsecondary education or credential more accessible and affordable for low-income students.

The bill would increase the automatic zero Expected Family Contribution (EFC) income threshold to $36,000, allowing more low-income students to be eligible for a maximum federal Pell Grant to help cover their college costs and basic needs.

The legislation would further improve college access by allowing applicants who have received benefits from a means-tested federal program to qualify for an automatic zero EFC and a maximum Pell Grant. The bill also permits higher education institutions to use information from students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms to reach out and counsel them on eligibility for outside scholarships or other means-tested programs—such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). CLASP strongly supports these provisions.

The bill allows students to use income data from the second preceding tax year to apply for financial aid through a streamlined data match between the U.S. Department of Education and Internal Revenue Service and strengthens the IRS data retrieval tool.

Importantly, the legislation provides federal financial aid eligibility to Dreamers—undocumented students who came to the United States as children—enabling them to afford the cost of college and pursue their career aspirations. CLASP strongly supports this provision, as well as the Dream Act (S. 1615/H.R. 3440), which would put undocumented immigrant youth who meet certain requirements on a path to citizenship.

The bill also eases and streamlines the verification and determination process for homeless and foster youth. Under the bill, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) must develop a single, easily understood screening question to identify homeless or foster youth applicants and make it easier for them to access federal student aid. Importantly, the bill clarifies that youth under age 24 who are determined to be homeless are considered independent students and can get the financial aid they need.

Finally, the bill eliminates unnecessary and burdensome questions on the FAFSA, such as the applicant’s criminal history, and makes the application more accessible to English learner students and their parents. Under the legislation, ED would be required to work with the U.S. Census Bureau to determine the most common languages spoken at homes in the United States and develop versions of the FAFSA in those languages.

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) applauds Senator Booker’s leadership in championing college access and affordability and helping low-income students move along pathways out of poverty. As Congress considers reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), we look forward to working with Senator Booker and other members of Congress to adopt student-focused HEA reforms that strengthen federal grant aid, increase supports to low-income and working students, and streamline the financial aid process to benefit low-income students.