Help with Aid Applications Raises College Attendance

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Individuals who receive assistance with the FAFSA -- the federal application for financial aid -- and information about what aid is available are substantially more likely to submit the aid application, [and] to enroll in college ...

Higher education can help individuals attain social and economic success, but decades of federal and state financial aid policies have not closed the gap between high- and low-income students' college attendance rates. Growing concerns about low awareness of and take-up rates for government support programs have spurred calls to simplify the application process for these programs and enhance their visibility.

In The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment (NBER Working Paper No. 15361), co-authors Eric Bettinger, Bridget Terry Long, Philip Oreopoulos, and Lisa Sanbonmatsu consider how to provide application assistance in a practical manner that would truly increase college attendance rates and aid receipt. Overall, their analysis suggests that individuals who receive help completing a simplified FAFSA -- the federal application for financial aid -- are substantially more likely to submit the aid application, to enroll in college the following fall, and to be awarded more financial aid. These results suggest that assistance and simplification could be effective ways to improve college access. However, only providing aid-eligibility information without also giving assistance with the application form seems to have no significant effect on FAFSA submission rates.

This study involved over 23,000 individuals and was targeted to families who were unlikely to be aware of financial aid resources or how to access them. The authors worked with H&R Block, a national tax-preparation firm, to set up an experiment in which tax professionals would help low- to moderate- income families complete the FAFSA. The families were then given an estimate of their eligibility for government aid as well as information about local and postsecondary schooling options. In a second version of the experiment, a randomly-chosen group of individuals -- referred to as the "information-only group" -- received only personalized aid-eligibility information but no help in completing the FAFSA.

The researchers find that dependent students who received assistance completing a simplified FAFSA and easy-to-understand information about aid eligibility relative to costs were 40 percent more likely to apply for financial aid than the information-only or control group. For independent individuals with a high school degree but with no prior college education, the authors observed a near tripling of the submission rate of aid applications; independent individuals with some prior college experience were 20 percent more likely to apply for aid.

After receiving both FAFSA help and information, high school seniors and recent high school graduates were 25 to 30 percent more likely to enroll in college (from 28 percent to 35 percent). Similarly, providing both information and help with the FAFSA increased college enrollment among low-income adults with no prior college experience by about 20 percent.

For individuals with previous college experience, the provision of information and assistance with FAFSA did not affect college enrollment. But low-income families, who according to the U.S. Department of Education were not expected to contribute towards their child's college expenses, were influenced most by the intervention. The experimental program also increased financial aid receipt for all participants who received help with forms and information, including those who had previously attended college. The increase in financial aid received ranged from 13 to 33 percent depending on the educational experience of the individual.

-- Claire Brunel