Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Getting More Students Across the Finish Line

June 11, 2015

Education after high school has become part of the American Dream.  Unfortunately, the odds are against many students striving to realize that dream.  From financial burdens to a lack of clear information on the cost of college and the return on their investment, students face a number of hurdles on their way to earning degrees or credentials.  Although we as a nation have made strides to eliminate some of these obstacles, more than 40 percent of students who start college don’t graduate.

Without enough college graduates, jobs go unfilled and our economy suffers.  The United States needs more people earning certificates and degrees for the country to remain economically competitive.  By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs in the U.S. will require education beyond high school.  At the current rate the nation is producing college graduates, there will be an estimated shortfall of 11 million workers with postsecondary credentials to fill those jobs.  

How do we get more students to and through college?  We can make higher education more personalized, flexible, and affordable through innovative technologies and interventions that better support students.  Last week, Bill Gates highlighted some promising solutions by pioneering higher education leaders, such as City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, and the inspiring students who are thriving under these institutional transformations.  

But these brave and innovative changes at colleges and universities still can’t address one of the largest barriers to college access and completion: the current process of applying for federal financial aid.

Consensus is forming across a broad range of partners and organizations that we need to fix the federal financial aid process, and we need to do it now. While specific details sometimes vary, we are united by a commitment to fixing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to ensure more students have access to earning a college degree.

At present, the FAFSA – the application that millions of students fill out to receive federal financial aid – fails our students and their families on three fronts:

  • It is complex. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) currently contains more than 100 questions, nearly one-third of which are answered by less than one percent of applicants. The FAFSA also uses terms such as “emancipated minor” that are unfamiliar to many applicants. Additionally, the information produced by the process focuses on what the student is expected to pay rather than the amount of aid they will receive, which is confusing to many.
  • It is redundant. Students must assemble and send the same information twice—once to the federal government and then, in many cases, again to the institution or institutions they want to attend.  Additionally, students are asked to provide tax information that they already provided to the IRS.
  • It is poorly timed. Students and their families must provide tax information that is not available until January (or even February) of the year they will attend college.  This leaves little time to complete aid applications, and then less time to weigh their options once aid decisions are made.

These challenges hit low-income and first-generation students especially hard.  According to a recent analysis, of the roughly two million students eligible for Pell Grants who do not file a FAFSA, more than half would be eligible for the maximum grant.  Getting even a portion of these students through the aid application process and into college would be a significant step toward increasing postsecondary access and success, all while bolstering our economy.

Fortunately, there are ways to make the aid application process simpler, more transparent, and better timed for students and their families.  By shortening and streamlining the process, more students will be able to apply to get the aid they need, which in turn will improve their chances of starting and completing a degree or credential.

Fixing the FAFSA will increase the number of students seeking credentials. It also will improve the odds of students completing certificate and degree programs and provide students better information and more time to prepare for and make decisions about where and how to attend college.  It will also free up the time for counselors and aid administrators to advise students instead of filling out needlessly long forms and re-verifying tax information.

Simplifying the aid application process is just one step toward increasing access and success for low-income and first-generation students. But it is an important step.   

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