Lamar Alexander Regrets Financial Aid Reform, Calls it a ‘Big Mess’

Many low-income students may miss out on college this fall due to the troubled launch of a new federal financial aid application.

The bungled introduction of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has left one individual particularly dismayed.

Lamar Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee, ex-U.S. education secretary, and erstwhile Republican leader of the Senate education committee, envisioned the FAFSA Simplification Act as his enduring legacy.

He was so dedicated to simplifying the process that he became known for publicly displaying the 108-question paper form at press events.

Former Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, chaired the Senate education committee from 2015 until he retired in 2020. (Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images)

“There are not many things that happen in Washington, D.C., that really improve the lives of 20 million American families every year,” he told The 74 last week. “This did, and once they implement it properly, it will be a great relief to these families.”

Despite the prolonged delays and mistakes, some high school seniors are still in the dark about their ability to afford college three months after the launch.

“I’m very disappointed with it,” Alexander expressed. “If they spent more time figuring out how to implement FAFSA and less time forgiving student loans, they might have done better.”

As governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987 and subsequently as the president of the University of Tennessee, Alexander only fully grasped the form’s hindrance to student college pursuits during his Senate tenure.

In a brief conversation, Alexander reflected on how he would have managed the rollout differently, his ongoing advocacy for higher education in Tennessee, and his political memoirs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: For readers who don’t know the history, why was simplifying the FAFSA so important to you?

Lamar Alexander: In 2005, the third year I was a senator, a group of college presidents from Tennessee came to see me and explained that the complexity of the 108-question form was the single biggest obstacle to low-income students going to college. It was difficult to fill out and many low-income students needed to get their grandmother’s tax returns. Maybe she didn’t have them or didn’t want to give them. They talked about the verification process, which means that if you made a mistake on the form you might lose your Pell Grant in the middle of your first semester. I was too junior at that time to do much about it, but 10 years later when I became the ranking Republican on the education committee, I got busy on it.

As time progressed, Gov. Bill Haslam in Tennessee signed a law providing two years of free tuition for community colleges. Completing the FAFSA proved to be the most significant obstacle to two years of free tuition for Tennesseans pursuing college. At a hearing on the matter, diverse witnesses’ consensus drove home the urgency for reform.

Did your frustration with the process begin when you were a university president?

I didn’t pay much heed. The magnitude of the issue didn’t register with me. I wasn’t aware of its impact on 20 million families annually. People must remember that the form must be filled out every year, and errors could jeopardize scholarships.

Former Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, was known for working across the aisle on the education committee with ranking Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

How closely have you been monitoring the turmoil of the past few months?

I’ve been getting firsthand accounts of the havoc it’s wreaking, particularly on admissions officers and families grappling with financial aid uncertainties. Although I don’t follow news reports closely, I’ve been hearing a lot about the situation.

There’s really no justification for it. The law underwent rigorous scrutiny.

If you were still leading the department, how do you think you would have handled the implementation?

If McDonald’s introduces a new burger, it’s not rolled out nationwide immediately. They test it in a few markets, sometimes for an extended period. With the impact on 20 million families, a gradual, tested approach, with implementation over time, would have been wisest. Rushing a flawed system to them isn’t prudent. This is a critical matter affecting numerous families.

“I’m very disappointed with it,” Alexander reiterated. “If they spent more time figuring out how to implement FAFSA and less time forgiving student loans, they might have done better.”

Do you miss being in the U.S. Senate?

I miss my friends, but I had 18 years. That’s a significant tenure, and now I’ve moved on to other pursuits.

While in the Senate, I would admonish people, “It’s hard to get here. It’s hard to stay here, and while you’re here you might as well try to accomplish something. And you can’t accomplish anything in the Senate unless you get 60 votes.” I learned to count in Maryville City Schools. To achieve results, bipartisan collaboration is essential. Making speeches isn’t the goal; it’s about making a difference.

Retired U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander was a featured speaker at the recent Inaugural Baker School Gala at the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs. (University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs)

How are you spending your time now?

I’m on the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust. Additionally, I’m assisting the University of Tennessee in establishing the Howard Baker School of Public Policy, which was recently dedicated. Besides, I’m aiding Maryville College, my hometown institution, in setting up a new science center with an environmental education program, fitting for our location near the biodiverse Great Smoky Mountains. I’ve been unexpectedly pulled back into higher education involvement.

I’m also concluding a memoir. Having maintained a diary, I recount many captivating stories, encounters with fascinating individuals, and initiatives that, though not widely covered, had a positive impact on many people, such as rectifying FAFSA.

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