Gates Foundation Suggests FAFSA Changes, Simplification


Bill and Melinda Gates have released a statement published on the Postsecondary section of the Gates Foundation saying that the hard-to-complete FAFSA is an obstacle to earning a degree, with the couple demanding changes.

They asked for an overhaul of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, the gateway to federal student loans and grants and many other financial offerings, to make it more accessible. The three main changes that the foundation requested are the elimination of complex questions that only apply to a few applicants, a method of accessing IRS data to automatically fill in part of the form, and allowing students to use two-year-old tax information so they can get an earlier start on completing the form.

Dan Greenstein, the Director of Postsecondary Success for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said that the higher education arm of the foundation focuses on college completion for the sake of the economy and wants to simplify the process as much as possible. According to the Gates Foundation, up to two million students per year give up on the complicated process, and many decide not to enroll in college.

Greenstein said the Foundation isn't alone in its calls for change:

There is already a lot of conversation around financial aid and FAFSA simplification. We're delighted to continue the debate. … The aim here is to use our voice to facilitate, sharpen, and focus the conversation. There's genuine, across-the-board recognition of the urgency of the problem.

The form, as it is now, asks all students more than 100 questions, which the Gates Foundation has said is too complex and redundant. 75% of students don't file tax schedules beyond the standard 1040 form, so the Gates group proposes a condensed version that deals with adjusted gross income, family size, the number of children in college, and a few additional questions for those with other assets.

Gates says that the IRS's on-file data should be available to help students complete forms with information from previous tax filings.

Donna Gordon Blankinship of the Associated Press quoted Greenstein:

The data exists, the technology exists, and there's an emergency sense of urgency.

Not only is the information complex, but students are required to submit "prior-year" tax data, meaning that they have only January and February to figure out the relevant information before aid deadlines.

These are not new ideas, however, and legislators have been aiming to trim down the FAFSA as well.

In January, US Senators Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) and Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) suggested that the FAFSA be replaced with a "postcard" that deals only with the applicant's family size and the household income from two years prior.

The White House's budget plan also included trimming down the FAFSA by one-third — about thirty questions.

The Department of Education has simplified the form since 2009, and the average completion time dropped from an hour to about 20 minutes.

Any further changes would have to be approved by Congress, writes Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal.

According to Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who specializes in financial aid policies, schools and states are concerned about oversimplification. Kelchen said:

I don't think there's as much agreement between what the higher ed community wants and what Congress wants. … There is a trade-off between simplicity and accuracy.

Press secretary Dorie Turner Nolt of the Department of Education said:

We have called on Congress to make key legislative changes to make FAFSA even simpler, but until that happens, we will look for other steps we can take to help students and families as they apply for federal financial aid.

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