Gates Foundation seeks to ease financial aid process

SEATTLE -- Two million more young people could get the financial aid they need to go to college if the federal government makes it easier to fill out its financial aid forms, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said Wednesday.

The Seattle-based foundation said revising the form would be relatively simple and would not change the accuracy of the process.

Students must fill out the form known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA before they can qualify for a federal grant, subsidized student loan or nearly any other form of college financial aid.

The Gates Foundation has taken aim at the FAFSA as part of its strategy to make college more accessible to low-income students, said Dan Greenstein, director of the Postsecondary Success team at the foundation.

They are far from alone in calling for reform of this complex application process that requires students to answer numerous questions each year about their parent's financial status and tax returns.

"There is already a lot of conversation around financial aid and FAFSA simplification. We're delighted to contribute to the debate," Greenstein said.

The foundation is asking for three changes:

- Eliminate many of the more complex questions on the form because they only apply to a small percentage of applicants.

- Allow a direct link to IRS data to automatically fill in part of the form.

- Let students use tax information from two years before their application so they don't have to wait until their parents start their current taxes.

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

He believes most of the proposed changes would require congressional approval, although the foundation has shared its findings with both Congress and the U.S. Department of Education.