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Research Shows Need for Simpler Financial Aid Process

September 30, 2009

by Agnes Jasinski

Financial aid programs that are simple and transparent are most effective for low-income students when it comes to not only getting those students to apply for the aid, but getting them enrolled in college at all, according to a scholarly paper released this week.

In a review of more than a dozen studies looking at how to make college more affordable and attainable to the neediest students, the paper "Into College, Out of Poverty? Policies to Increase the Postsecondary Attainment of the Poor" from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the effectiveness of a variety of programs, including popular federal and private scholarships, Pell Grants and subsidized student loans. The paper concluded that the easier it is for students to apply, the more likely they will be to apply, and the more likely they'll be going to college as they wouldn't have the funding to do so without applying.

The information that students are intimidated by paperwork and financial aid information isn't surprising. A recent blog post showed the results of a recent study on how professional assistance while filling out the FAFSA boosts the number of students filling out the financial aid application and receiving generous funding. What was more surprising this time around was that certain programs lauded for their assistance of low-income students could be doing better, according to the paper.

An article in Inside Higher Ed today describes the authors' position on the Pell Grant in particular. While the program is effective in targeting low-income students who may not have had the opportunity to attend college otherwise, the amount of paperwork required to receive an award makes the program not as accessible as it could - and should - be. A piece of a recent bill passed in the House and now awaiting Senate action (the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009) would simplify the financial aid application process and potentially make low-income students more comfortable with the process.

The paper also concluded that programs tied to academic performance and that have a broad base when it comes to who can apply - even if the awards are not specifically tied to a student's financial need - are more desirable to low-income students. Why would the neediest students want to compete against a larger pool of applicants for merit-based scholarships? Perhaps the applications for these awards are less time-consuming or easier to manage. Inside Higher Ed gives the example of Georgia's HOPE program, which awards free public tuition to any student with a 3.0 GPA in high school.

The paper was written by David Deming of Harvard University and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan, with support from the Robin Hood Foundation. The Robin Hood Foundation is preparing to release a book on the topic: Targeting Investments in Children: Fighting Poverty When Resources are Limited. For more information on financial aid application strategies, including tips on filling out the FAFSA, browse through our site so that you're prepared when it's time to find money for college.


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