Education chief DeVos, in Atlanta, pledges help on financial aid

5:23 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (center) greets GSU students (from left) Donte Brown, Amila Shake, Jenny Pham and Leila Collins after they took a group photograph during Georgia State University tour and roundtable discussion with students at GSU on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The nation’s top education official came to Georgia State University’s Atlanta campus Tuesday afternoon to tout a new effort to accomplish what some might say is the impossible: streamlining the student financial aid application process.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told a group of six Georgia State students during a 30-minute discussion about plans to create a mobile app by fall 2018 for students to apply for aid, enhancing cybersecurity to protect personal data on financial aid forms and finding other ways to make filling out the form easier.

“That would be a game changer,” student Leila Collins said of the app.

“Something like this would be, as you said, a game changer,” DeVos replied.

DeVos said she understood the frustration many students have with the application process, citing complaints that students may have to use several online portals and they’re confused by the dozens of repayment plans. DeVos noted some students don’t fill out the form because they’re frustrated about how to fill it out.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid can be accessed online. It can take hours, many say, to find the necessary information to fill it out correctly. About 20 million FAFSA forms are completed each year, according to the federal government.

The students told DeVos about challenges filling out the forms, such as figuring out what tax information to include and the weeks it frequently takes to correct errors students make on the application.

“I couldn’t ask my parents for help because they had no idea,” GSU student Donte Brown said regarding tax information on the form.

The students asked DeVos questions about technical glitches that occur when filling out the forms and offered her suggestions, such as creating a program that answers students’ questions in real time.

Some of the changes would take time and require congressional approval, officials said. Education department officials plan to outline more details about the plans Wednesday.

DeVos also used her first visit to Atlanta as education secretary to learn more about Georgia State’s student adviser process. The university has been lauded in recent years by some educators for using data in an approach called “predictive analytics” to quickly determine when students need help and then having advisers offer assistance.

The students said the advisers helped map out what courses to take several years in advance and steer them toward internships.

Georgia State’s six-year graduation rate is 54 percent, according to federal data. Georgia State has more than 51,000 students, the largest public enrollment in the state.

“It’s been remarkable what the institution has been able to accomplish,” DeVos said.

DeVos, who took office in February, has been one of the most controversial members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet. She’s been criticized by some for remarks intended to celebrate historically black colleges and for recent changes to how schools investigate sexual misconduct. Supporters have praised DeVos for her support of charter schools and efforts to dismantle Obama-administration policies.

Eight people stood outside the campus building where DeVos spoke, yelling for her to meet with them.

DeVos’ visit comes as Congress works on major changes to the tax system that have many educators and students worried. The plans include a tax on tuition waivers that graduate and doctoral students receive for research work they do on campus; eliminating a $250 educator expense deduction, which helps offset some costs of classroom materials; and a 1.4 percent tax on the net investment on private colleges and universities’ endowments.

A spokeswoman for DeVos said the secretary would decline comment on the tax changes until the legislative process is complete.