Reimagining Financial Aid

WASHINGTON — The first results of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s effort to redesign the federal financial aid system are in: 15 white papers totaling 587 pages, nearly all calling for an overhaul of at least part of the nation’s system for helping students pay for college in order to improve graduation rates.

Taken together, the 15 papers represent a $3.3 million effort to influence the conversation about federal financial aid as Congress begins preparing to renew the Higher Education Act. (Two more organizations, which received their grants late, are expected to release their reports this spring.) The reports share a focus on using financial aid to increase the number of college graduates in the U.S. — the Gates Foundation's holy grail. But the recommendations conflict and contradict each other more often than they reach any consensus on what an ideal financial aid system would look like.

When the foundation first announced the Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, Gates's first major foray into financial aid policy, some critics feared that the papers would provide political cover for budget-cutting lawmakers, or that the emphasis on college completion would help some students while harming others — particularly low-income students who underperformed in the classroom. They warned that using federal grants and loans to boost college graduation rates could corrupt the historic focus of helping needy students. They feared a collective call to focus not on college access but on college completion, backed by the clout of the Gates Foundation.

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