Divided We Learn

OPINION — Did applying for financial aid just get harder?

How simplifying FAFSA can help close the gap in college enrollment

In the United States, the financial benefits of a college education are at historic highs, but students from poor backgrounds are falling further behind their more affluent peers in college enrollment and completion.

Navigating the transition to college is complex and intimidating for many adolescents, especially those from families and schools where going to college is not the norm. Even after being accepted to colleges, nearly one in five students fails to matriculate — a phenomenon commonly known as “summer melt.”

Challenges to matriculating disproportionately affect our most disadvantaged students, and many low-income students who intend to go to college ultimately do not follow through. For example, while nearly two-thirds of a sample of high school seniors in urban Boston public schools said they intended to enroll in a two- or four-year college the next year, less than a quarter actually did so.

One potentially significant hurdle for low-income students is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), due at the end of June. The FAFSA form includes more than 100 questions on earnings, savings, government benefits, and parents’ education and finances. Without financial aid, college is out of reach for many students — yet the complexity of the FAFSA form itself makes financial aid difficult to access for some of the very individuals who need it most.

Related: Top universities could take thousands more low-income students, study says

Applying for financial aid may have gotten even harder when on March 3rd — during peak FAFSA application season — a key component of the form known as the Data Retrieval Tool stopped functioning. Through a connection with the IRS, the tool automatically takes information from an applicant’s tax return and fills in the relevant sections on the FAFSA.

Without access to the tool, applicants must transcribe information from old returns or wait several weeks to receive tax transcripts from the IRS. According to the Department of Education and IRS, the Data Retrieval Tool was suspended as a precautionary step following concerns that information could potentially be misused by identity thieves. Despite concerns from students, parents, and advocacy organizations, the tool will remain non-operational until the next FAFSA season begins this fall.

If research is any indication, removing access to the Data Retrieval Tool could substantially drive down college enrollment among low-income students. At J-PAL North America, an economic research center based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we test innovative strategies to reduce poverty (such as helping disadvantaged students go to college) and seek to scale up programs that work. A study by Eric Bettinger (Stanford), Bridget Terry Long (Harvard), Phil Oreopoulos (University of Toronto), and Lisa Sanbonmatsu (National Bureau of Economic Research) found that using a software program that simplified the FAFSA form by automatically populating it with tax return data significantly increased the likelihood that low-income students would enroll in — and stay in — college.

The program was offered to low-income, college-eligible families in Ohio and North Carolina in collaboration with H&R Block as an add-on to the typical tax preparation service, and took only about eight minutes to complete.

Related: With consumers pushing back against increased tuition, colleges seek new revenue

Financially dependent high school students were 24 percent more likely to enroll in college if their parents had been offered this program and were 36 percent more likely to receive a Pell Grant.

Among financially independent students, the program increased college enrollment by 16 percent and Pell Grant receipt by 27 percent. When the researchers followed up with the students three years later, they found that they were also 29 percent more likely to have completed at least two years of college.

The success of this program fits with what we know from the field of behavioral science. College-going decisions are inherently complicated, impose immediate costs and offer diffuse benefits, and require students to project current preferences onto future circumstances—in short, they are the type of difficult choices for which providing additional structure and support can be especially helpful. Effective interventions can help students overcome human tendencies to focus on the present and what is most salient or top of mind—such as an application seeming too complex or expectations that college will be too expensive.

Related: Tangled process of applying for financial aid deepens college affordability crisis

In the United States, the financial benefits of a college education are at historic highs, but students from poor backgrounds are falling further behind their more affluent peers in college enrollment and completion.

Only seven percent of low-income youth complete four-year degrees by age 26, whereas 51 percent of youth from the highest income quartile do.

Supporting efficient and scalable programs that ease the complicated financial aid application process can make the difference between whether students go to college or end their formal education — and make an important step toward closing the stark inequalities in higher education in our country.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Quentin Palfrey is the executive director of J-PAL North America at MIT and a former senior adviser at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

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Quentin Palfrey

Quentin Palfrey is the executive director of J-PAL North America at MIT and a former senior adviser at the White House Office of Science &… See Archive

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