The current process for applying for federal financial aid creates significant barriers to postsecondary education, limiting the number of college graduates and hurting the U.S. economy, a white paper from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation argues.
According to the report, Better for Students: Simplifying the Federal Financial Aid Process (32 pages, PDF), the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) , which involves more than a hundred questions, is overly complex and redundant, and applicants aren't notified of their financial aid packages until shortly before they have to commit to a school. As a result, up to two million students likely to be eligible for aid don't even apply. The white paper proposes three actions designed to make the application process more straightforward and enable more students — especially low-income students and those who are the first in their family to attend college — to receive the support they need: simplify FAFSA itself by removing unnecessary questions and tailoring the application to the particularities of the student's financial situation; streamline the process by using income tax data already submitted to the Internal Revenue Service; and allow students to use tax data from a full year prior so they can apply for federal aid earlier in the process, leaving sufficient time to make informed choices based on their financial aid package.
By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require a postsecondary credential, but if current college attainment rates persist the country is looking at an estimated shortfall of eleven million workers to fill those jobs. Simplifying and streamlining FAFSA, the report argues, would increase the number of students pursuing a postsecondary education, improve degree completion rates, and free up time for counselors and aid administrators to advise students instead of filling out forms and re-verifying tax information. The foundation's ultimate goal, according to the paper, is to eliminate the application altogether and, instead, assess student eligibility based on existing income information provided through tax filings, with students automatically notified about their likely eligibility.
"There is already a lot of conversation around financial aid and FAFSA simplification," Dan Greenstein, director of the Postsecondary Success team at the foundation, told the New York Times. "We're delighted to contribute to the debate....The data exists, the technology exists, and there's [a] sense of urgency."