“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come,” is the translated prose of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo in The History of a Crime, which depicts the 1851 coup d’état that saw Napoleon’s rise to power. Those words still hold true today. 

This summer, we have witnessed a series of powerful ideas alter the course of history, like extending the freedom to marry and removing confederate flags from capitol grounds. I would posit, thanks to a white paper recently published by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that the next big idea is that Americans should enjoy the opportunity to easily apply for and receive timely, clear information about federal grants and loans for college.   


Building on the work of researchers, experts and national organizations representing students, employers and colleges, the Gates Foundation report shows us that it will not take Napoleonic might to change the federal financial aid application process. What it will take is a number of small, practical solutions based on a decade of experimentation and evaluation of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – more commonly known as FAFSA. Based on that research, here is what we know: 

·      The current FAFSA is 108 questions long, yet 30 of them are answered by less than 1 percent of all students;

·      It would only take data about income and family size to accurately predict a federal Pell grant within $500 for 75 percent of students;

·      The IRS and the Department of Education have been successfully sharing data and protecting privacy for five years;

·      State aid would not significantly change with a simplified FAFSA, assuming aid is well-targeted on our neediest students;

·      At least 2 million more students would likely both file and qualify for the financial aid they need under a streamlined FAFSA;

·      An estimated 65 percent of these new students are poor enough to receive a maximum Pell grant. For them, community college would be free in 49 states;

·      Filing for federal aid is an on-ramp to receiving millions in state and institutional aid;

·      Students with financial aid are more likely to enroll in college, persist and complete a credential.  

So here’s another idea: the FAFSA as we know it should be retired. This notion is supported by Sens. Michael Bennet, (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn)., the Obama administration, and the Gates Foundation, all of whom are proposing changes that would improve upon the recommendations experts, including myself, gave to the House and Senate in 2013. 

Specifically, Congress should allow students to grant the IRS permission to safely share the income and assets data they already provide annually in tax returns with the Department of Education. And we should make this even easier by meeting applicants where they’re at – on their smartphones. Students of all ages and family backgrounds should hold the power to quickly and easily sign off on these IRS permissions and complete the entire aid registration process in the palm of their hands.  

Revising the federal financial aid process would give peace of mind to America’s young people, who are still largely first generation college students and increasingly worried about college affordability. Today, 18-year olds are expected to endure an hour-long FAFSA application process only to be told how much aid they will NOT receive. The Gates recommendations aim to flip the switch, and instead fully inform prospective students and their families of how much grant and loan assistance they will get, for how long and what repayment will look like.  

The current FAFSA form and process has served us well for 23 years, but has now outlived its utility. As a Pell grant recipient, I think the greatest tribute to the FAFSA we can offer is to let the steady march of progress advance. #FixFAFSA. Now.

Conklin is a founding partner at HCM Strategists, a full-service policy and strategy firm that works hand-in-hand with its primarily non-profit and philanthropic clients. She is an expert in higher education policy and strategy development at the state and federal levels across the firm’s higher education clients.