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Fixing financial aid
A simpler student aid application would help more kids realize their dream of going to college.
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“Overwhelming,” “confusing,” “scary,” “intimidating,” “nerve-wracking,” “embarrassing,” and “miserable.” The college students I met recently sounded like they were describing a horror film or a tough final exam. Instead, they were recounting their struggles navigating America’s financial aid system.

Each year, the U.S. government offers more than $120 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds to help students pay for college. But the overly complex and confusing financial aid system is failing the students most in need of assistance, preventing them from pursuing their dreams of attending college.

Only about half of low-income high school seniors who would qualify for federal student loans or grants apply for them. And just under one-third of low-income high school seniors who would be eligible for Pell Grants, a federal subsidy for the neediest students that does not need to be paid back, take advantage of them when they start college. Without financial aid, many students drop out of school or decide not to go to college at all. At a time when our country needs more college graduates, the financial aid application process has become an unnecessary roadblock on the path to a higher education degree.

The group of first-generation college students I sat down with recently in Washington, DC told me that one of the biggest challenges they face is the application form itself. Any student who wants a federal grant or loan needs to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA. With 108 detailed questions, the FAFSA is more than three times longer than a standard federal income tax form. It quizzes prospective students on “untaxed portions of IRA distributions from IRS Form 1040—Lines (16a minus 15 b)” and uses confusing terms like “emancipated minor” and “dislocated worker.”

“I called up my parents to ask, ‘Hey, what does this question mean about welfare,’ and they didn’t even know how to answer it,” Kevion Ellis, a first-generation student attending the University of Northern Colorado said. “It really frustrated me.”

Kyle Brodnick, a student at Governors State University, described how even after filling out his application successfully his grant was delayed because of a confusing verification process. As a result, the university dropped him from his classes. “The teacher is like, ‘I don’t have you on my list anymore,’” he said. “It was embarrassing.” 

Much of the information students are asked to provide is redundant. They must give it once to the federal government and again to the university. And many of the questions are irrelevant for most applicants, making it longer and more complicated than necessary. According to one study, about one-third of the questions on the FAFSA need to be answered by just 1 percent of applicants.

These challenges hit low-income and first-generation students the hardest. Without financial aid, many of the neediest students cannot afford tuition and they give up on their dreams of going to college. This is tragic. Not just for students and their families, but our country’s efforts to fight inequity. A high-income student is five times more likely than a low-income student to have a college degree by age 24.

Our foundation, along with many university officials, political leaders, and researchers, has been working on several proposals to address these challenges:

Simplify the FAFSA form: Because of their financial situations, three-quarters of all FAFSA applicants do not need to answer the long list of questions on the form. One proposal is to shorten the form for these applicants, particularly low-income filers. For some applicants, more information may be needed to consider their aid application, but the number of questions can still be reduced. Some minor changes to the form to make it simpler have already increased the number of students applying for aid.

Encourage data sharing: Some FAFSA filers can use existing tax information already reported to the IRS to pre-populate the FAFSA application form using the IRS’s data retrieval tool. We should expand access to this data for more filers in the future.

Go mobile: A new mobile app for FAFSA is expected to be released by the U.S. Department of Education this year. Given that more students have mobile devices than computers, this change should lead to higher application rates.

At the heart of all these proposals to simplify the financial aid process is an even simpler idea. If we want to give more students the opportunity to go to college, we should meet them where they are. We need to understand the challenges of higher education from their perspective, and that starts by listening to what they have to say. Thanks to the students sharing their stories, I now have a better appreciation of the challenges they face in getting financial aid. Our foundation looks forward to continuing to work with students, universities, government, and other partners on solutions that make a path to a college degree more efficient, more affordable, and more accessible to everyone.

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