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Redesign the FAFSA

Make the FAFSA shorter, simpler, and easier to complete.

Photo of Alex Williams
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Although promising changes have been made recently (such as allowing prior-prior year tax filing submissions), the FAFSA as a physical form remains elusive. It includes dozens of redundant questions (many of which aren't even used for financial aid, they're just holdover questions), takes an average of 1-3 hours to complete, and uses language that eludes even legal experts. These complexities cause thousands of students every year to download, start, but never complete the FAFSA. 30% of all applicants whoe families earn less than $20k never file a FAFSA. It's time a for redesign.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

While financial aid offices and the Department of Education would certainly be happy, the real beneficiaries of a redesign would be all of those students who are eligible for financial aid and never receive it because they couldn't complete the FAFSA (including, but not limited to, the 30% of lowest-income earners who don't complete a FAFSA).

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Designers: Those involved in creating, curating, and developing forms, particularly with heavy UX/UI considerations (e.g., the Google forms team)
Implementers: Those with connects to the Dept. of Ed who could realize this redesign

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Design a simpler form and take it to a local high school or community org to test it. Test it for: time it takes to complete, understanding of questions, the emotional reaction to the form, and so on. Additional tests could be run translating such forms into non-English languages. Consult with form experts to consider what tests they run when design forms.

Tell us about your work experience:

I've worked for 4 years at community colleges and four-year universities, mostly in academic affairs, and now work for a non-profit consulting firm in the higher ed space. Redesigning the FAFSA is an easy, cost-neutral way to dramatically improve access to financial aid and, as a result, student success.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Alex,

Thank you for sharing this with us. I just want to post a link to the FAFSA for the global participants in the challenge -

Is there also a need to support students so they know all of the different ways of getting course credits e.g. Hacking a Credential Can the way the curriculum be delivered in a different way to make it more affordable?

Is there any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

Photo of Alex Williams

Thanks for posting a link to the FAFSA!

As to your second part: I absolutely agree we need new frameworks for conceptualizing the higher ed experience, including that financial, operational, and legal models used to deliver education. My goal with this idea was to propose something that is easy to implement (i.e., specifically does not dramatically alter the dynamics of higher ed in the US), can have a massive impact (re: the thousands of low- and middle-income earners who never complete a FAFSA, let alone those would otherwise never consider college for cost reasons), and is cost-neutral (costing only the time of the redesign itself).

Although not a systemic change, small-step/high-impact efforts like redesigning the FAFSA can beautifully complement efforts like Hacking a Credential (e.g., using financial aid funds to design your own college-workforce pathway that includes MOOCs and bootcamps) and A New Financial Model for Higher Education (

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Alex. The statistics you posted are unbelievable! I agree that if completing a form is a roadblock for receiving aid for those who most need it that this is a high priority area that could have much impact! FAFSA has a twitter account. I just saw this tweet that links to a blog post giving a tip.

Would tips like this, linked to the form, be a way to assist many people?

Are you familiar with the Better Make Room initiative?

Photo of Alex Williams

To be honest, that blog post highlights, rather than solves, the FAFSA problem. For what should ostensibly be an easy step (essentially duplicating a form), this post uses almost four pages of text, four sub-headers, confusing acronyms (FSA? EFC?), and jumps in and out of paragraphs to graphs to tables back to text. Yes, the concept is great, but something that is user-friendly should not take this kind of explanation. (Also, the DoE's website could use a website, as all of the text on the right-side is mind-numbing and hard to follow...but I digress.)

As for the Better Make Room Initiative, what an awesome idea! A simple yet creative portal that helps build a college-going identity, a powerful catalyst for attending college.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Thanks for the feedback. Sounds frustrating…. re: the tip which is so complicated.
I agree that the Better Make Room Initiative is a great idea! I just discovered it recently. It is a collaborative effort between a non profit and the Dept of Educ, supporting Michele Obama's Reach Higher Initiative. Hopefully with feedback the FAFSA will be redesigned.

"The Napkin Finance" that appears in the Better Make Room Initiative was posted in a previous OpenIDEO Challenge. Very cool that it is now part of a large program for youth!