September 16, 2020
Education Chiefs Call on Congress to Simplify the FAFSA

Education Chiefs Call on Congress to Simplify the FAFSA
Report Explains How the Federal Government Can “Change the FAFSA to Change the Future”

On the eve of the U.S. Senate committee hearing “Time to Finish Fixing the FAFSA,” Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders, today released a report that recommends ways to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Change the FAFSA to Change the Future also outlines promising practices for how to support students in planning for college and careers amid COVID-19.

The report explains that the current version of the FAFSA—with more than 100 questions over 10 pages—is too long and too complicated, creating a major barrier to college financial aid. Research has shown that students who complete the application are more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree, but even in normal times, fewer than two thirds of high school graduates submit the form. According to one study, the numbers are even worse for students of color and those from low-income families. The coronavirus presents a number of additional challenges for students.

“With the uncertainty of COVID-19, many high school seniors here in San Antonio and around the nation are worried about what they will do after graduation,” said Chiefs for Change Board Chair and San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez. “It is more important than ever that we give them the support they need to continue their education. Simplifying the FAFSA is one of the best ways to do that.”

Among the recommendations outlined in the report:

  • Streamline the FAFSA to only include key questions for determining aid and ensure the form is clear and straightforward.
  • Have students complete the form only once instead of requiring them to refile it each year.
  • Increase information sharing among relevant federal agencies. As one example, applicants who already meet specific criteria, like qualifying for certain means-tested benefits such as Medicaid or government food assistance, should automatically qualify for maximum Pell Grants.

“The federal government sets aside billions of dollars in financial aid each year to make college more affordable—but the application for aid can be difficult to complete,” said Chiefs for Change Board Member and Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson. “While Chicago Public Schools has among the highest FAFSA completion rates of any large school district in the nation, we believe the process needs to be easier so our most vulnerable students can access available funds to help them pursue their dreams for the future.”

San Antonio Independent School District and Chicago Public Schools were the top-performing systems in the Chiefs for Change/Data Insight Partners FAFSA Fast Break, an initiative designed to boost FAFSA completion rates in districts led by members of the network: 75.5 percent of eligible students in San Antonio’s Class of 2020 completed the FAFSA along with 67.5 percent of such students in Chicago.

The FAFSA Fast Break ran from December 2019 through June 2020. Despite school closures due to COVID-19, several participating districts increased their year-over-year FAFSA completions. The report released today outlines approaches that systems led by members of Chiefs for Change are taking to support students in their college and career planning, even while classes in some districts are held online. The approaches include:

  • Targeted text message campaigns to share deadlines and other important information and to answer students’ individual questions about financial aid.
  • Virtual counseling via Instagram Live and other platforms to help students and families navigate the financial aid process.
  • Peer influencer networks where seniors share information with fellow students over social media about scholarships, financial aid, college, and careers.
  • Virtual events that explain the various types of aid and walk families through the process of completing the FAFSA.
  • An online college and career hub with FAFSA checklists, video tutorials, and other key information.
  • A program that provides coaching and mentorship to high school graduates through their first two years of college to help them stay on track and earn a degree.
  • Partnerships with local colleges in which financial aid experts host online sessions to answer students’ questions.
  • Committees that follow up with graduates to ensure they follow through on their postsecondary plans.
  • School-based leadership teams that coordinate efforts to help students apply for and enroll in college.
  • A free financial aid certification program to train educators in helping students plan for college.

The members of Chiefs for Change recognize the importance of postsecondary education and are working to ensure the pandemic does not derail students’ plans for the future. The chiefs urge Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to simplify the FAFSA, support the implementation of promising strategies described in the report, and put more students on the path to a college degree and success in life.


About Chiefs for Change
Chiefs for Change is a bipartisan network of diverse state and district education chiefs dedicated to preparing all students for today’s world and tomorrow’s through deeply committed leadership. Chiefs for Change advocates for policies and practices that are making a difference today for students, and builds a pipeline of talented, diverse Future Chiefs ready to lead major school systems.