August 23, 2018

For students from low-income families, money is often a prohibitive barrier to entering and completing college. At the same time, however, many students struggle to access the federal resources that are available to help make college more affordable.

In 1965, the United States created the Pell Grant program to help provide qualifying students with access to financial aid that can be used at any one of approximately 5,400 colleges and other postsecondary institutions throughout the country. In 2017, the average Pell Grant was $3,740 per year.

Unfortunately, it is estimated that more than $2 billion in potential Pell Grants go unclaimed every year because approximately one-third of high school seniors do not fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Students who complete the FAFSA are 12% more likely to graduate from a 2- or 4-year college. Another study focused on California Community Colleges found that after accounting for academic readiness, whether a low-income student received government grants was the best predictor of academic success. In other words, getting access to federal financial aid makes a difference.

Some students do not apply for aid because the process is intimidating and unfamiliar.

There are many barriers to FAFSA completion, including lack of awareness about federal financial aid overall and difficulty in collecting the necessary personal and family financial information required to apply.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made it a priority to fundamentally redesign the FAFSA, and they have put together a short video that highlights many of the challenges in the current application, which you can see here.

Fundamentally redesigning the FAFSA would make a significant difference. This is likely to be a lengthy process, however, because doing so will require sweeping action by the federal government.

The question we are asking is: what can we do in the meantime to help more students get the resources they need to go to and graduate from college?

A bad “customer experience” should not be a barrier to getting a college degree.

We believe that some of the crucial barriers to securing federal financial aid are addressable today, even without a much-needed overhaul of the application process of the kind that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation rightly seeks.

One of the barriers to FAFSA completion is that students have to ask their parents for a wide array of personal financial information. Such conversations can be uncomfortable for many families and often places the responsibility on students themselves to describe the process correctly to their parents. A potential solution to this challenge might be to offer short, high-quality videos in a variety of languages that students can show to their parents on their smartphones (nationally, 94% of 18-29-years-olds own smartphones, according to Pew).

Another pain point is that students and parents generally work on their applications at night. If they have a question about the process, there is no one to ask until the next day, when they are often back at work or school, and unable to reach out for assistance. This can make it difficult to sustain momentum and complete the laborious process. A potential solution might be to set up a helpline that is staffed at night, so that students and parents can call in when they are most likely to be working on the application.

These simple solutions illustrate a “customer experience” approach that works backwards from the real-world challenges that stand in the way of completing a complicated form and tries to find the most pragmatic solutions. These examples may not prove to be the most important pain points or the best solutions, but they illustrate an approach to developing solutions that we believe can make a difference here.

In the City of Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf aims to dramatically increase the number of college graduates by 2025.

Making college completion a reality for every child has become the defining vision of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. In 2016, Mayor Schaaf launched the Oakland Promise, a citywide initiative that provides “cradle to career” initiatives and resources to ensure that all children in Oakland can complete college and be successful in their careers. It is particularly focused on children and families who are traditionally underrepresented in college, including low-income and first-generation students.

By 2025, the city aims to dramatically increase the number of college graduates from Oakland public schools. Oakland Promise has already developed strategies to increase FAFSA completion to more than 90 percent in two pilot high schools. Finding ways to scale this success to all Oakland students is critical to giving every child the opportunity to go to college.

Leadership from a FUSE Fellow will help make it happen.

As cities like Oakland work to support students in pursuing college, these governments face their own resource constraints. Many cities lack the capacity to conceive, pilot, study, scale and sustain new approaches to FAFSA completion that would help make college more accessible.

FUSE Corps is a national nonprofit that partners with local governments to help urban communities thrive. The organization works with cities on a range of issues, including economic and workforce development, healthcare, public safety, climate change, and education.

The FUSE approach centers around an executive fellowship program. The organization works closely with local government partners to design yearlong strategic projects and then recruit and support experienced leaders to undertake those challenges.

FUSE recently placed a fellow in the City of Stockton, California, to help launch the Stockton Promise program, which is similar to the Promise program developed in Oakland. Over the past year, FUSE Fellow Jason Weiner has worked with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs to address issues of college affordability within that community. The partnership has helped attract significant new resources to the community and made major strides toward supporting the college goals of Stockton students.

To support the work in Oakland over the coming year, the City will partner with FUSE Corps to host a fellow who will support a plan for enhancing college affordability, including addressing barriers to FAFSA completion. Removing these barriers and making the process of applying for federal aid more direct and transparent is a crucial step toward addressing the opportunity gap that is faced by low-income families.

Increasing access to financial aid is important and addressable, in Oakland and beyond.

While every city is unique and requires a customized approach to community-based problem solving, there are common challenges. Moreover, through more than 100 projects in 20 cities over the past seven years, FUSE has found that proven solutions can be shared between communities and replicated to help expand the impact of a given innovation.

Over the coming year, FUSE will assess the opportunity to leverage its work in Stockton and Oakland to help other cities build and expand their efforts around college access and affordability.

We co-founded and co-chair FUSE’s emerging national initiatives around college affordability because we believe strongly in the difference city leaders can make on college access, even in the face of limited resources, and especially with the help of a world-class FUSE fellow. In our day jobs at McKinsey & Company, we help some of the biggest organizations transform their customers’ experiences. We hope to use some of what we have learned to partner with FUSE and city leaders in a personal and volunteer capacity to similarly improve students’ experiences in securing financial aid.

Alfonso Pulido & Robert Schiff co-founded and are co-chairing FUSE’s national initiative around college access and affordability. Alfonso is a Partner at McKinsey & Company, co-leading McKinsey’s Service Design Practice and the West Coast Tech Practice. Robert is also a Partner at McKinsey & Company, co-leading Customer Experience in Banking and previously having co-founded McKinsey’s global Financial Inclusion Practice. Alfonso and Robert are co-leading this effort in a personal and volunteer capacity.

[Photo credit: Baim Hanif]