Student Aid Simplification: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Susan Dynarski, Mark Wiederspan

NBER Working Paper No. 17834
Issued in February 2012
NBER Program(s):   CH   ED   PE

Each year, fourteen million households seeking federal aid for college complete a detailed questionnaire about their finances, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). At 116 questions, the FAFSA is almost as long as IRS Form 1040 and substantially longer than Forms 1040EZ and 1040A. Aid for college is intended to increase college attendance by reducing its price and loosening liquidity constraints. Economic theory, empirical evidence and common sense suggest that complexity in aid could undermine its ability to affect schooling decisions. In 2006, Dynarski and Scott-Clayton published an analysis of complexity in the aid system that generated considerable discussion in academic and policy circles. Over the next few years, complexity in the aid system drew the attention of the media, advocacy groups, presidential candidates, the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers. A flurry of legislative and agency activity followed. In this article, we provide a five-year retrospective of what has changed in the aid application process, what has not, and the possibilities for future reform.

download in pdf format
   (94 K)

email paper

This paper is available as PDF (94 K) or via email.

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w17834

Published: “Student Aid Simplification: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” 2012. National Tax Journal 65:1, pp. 211-234. Co-author: Mark Wiederspan.

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded these:
Dynarski and Scott-Clayton w12227 The Cost of Complexity in Federal Student Aid: Lessons from Optimal Tax Theory and Behavioral Economics
Bettinger, Long, Oreopoulos, and Sanbonmatsu w15361 The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment
Dynarski and Scott-Clayton w18710 Financial Aid Policy: Lessons from Research
Cellini and Goldin w17827 Does Federal Student Aid Raise Tuition? New Evidence on For-Profit Colleges
Dynarski, Scott-Clayton, and Wiederspan w18707 Simplifying Tax Incentives and Aid for College: Progress and Prospects
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us