Gates Backs FAFSA Overhaul

The foundation's first higher education policy proposal aims to simplify the financial aid process for students while satisfying college and state concerns about getting rid of too much information.

July 9, 2015

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is throwing its support behind efforts to redesign the federal government’s student aid application process to make it easier for students to get loans and grants for college.

In a white paper published Wednesday, the foundation called for reducing and streamlining questions on the application form, known as the FAFSA, and allowing families to apply for aid earlier during the college process.

The proposal is the foundation’s first since announcing earlier this year that it plans to play a more active role in higher education policy debates. Over the past several years, the foundation has also sponsored a wide range of research on ways to redesign different aspects of how, when and in what form students receive financial aid from the federal government.

In pressing for FAFSA simplification now, the foundation joins a number of other groups and policy makers in Washington who are eyeing changes to how students access federal student aid.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, has called for reducing the 108-question FAFSA to a two-question document. And the Obama administration said earlier this year it’s working on its own effort to eliminate questions on the form.

Efforts to simplify the FAFSA are not new, but calls to eliminate large numbers of questions on the form have been met with pushback from some colleges and states, who worry that they won't have enough information to judge a student's financial needs. The Gates paper strikes somewhat of a middle ground by leaving in some questions important to state grant programs and eliminating some of the administrative burden colleges face in having to verify students' information.

Dan Greenstein, the foundation’s director of education and postsecondary success, said he sees simplifying the FAFSA form and easing the financial aid process as important to the foundation’s overarching goal of boosting degree completion, especially for low-income and first-generation students.

“We’re launching this into an environment in which there’s bipartisan consensus that this is achievable. There is a lot of energy on all sides,” he said. “Our goal is to really nudge the conversation along.”

The foundation’s paper echoes oft-repeated concerns about how the federal government currently requires students to apply for loans and grants: it’s complex, redundant and poorly timed. The paper calls for simplifying the FAFSA by sorting students into two different groups based on the complexity of their financial circumstances.

The majority of students, roughly 75 percent, whose families have simple financial situations -- meaning they don’t have assets beyond a home, retirement account or small business -- would complete a form with very few questions. Students with more complex circumstances would face more questions but fewer than the current form.

All students should be able to input more data into the FAFSA directly from the Internal Revenue Service, the foundation said. That would both improve the accuracy of data and reduce the burden on families.

The foundation also called for allowing students to fill out the FAFSA using income data from two years earlier instead of the immediately previous year. That switch to what is often referred to as prior-prior year data would help families be able to apply for aid earlier in the financial aid process.

Greenstein said the foundation is working on a cost analysis of its simplification proposal to be released later this year.


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