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Easier Aid Form Linked to Higher College-Going Rates

By Catherine Gewertz — September 23, 2009 5 min read

High school seniors who used a highly simplified version of the daunting federal application for student financial aid—and had help completing it—were 30 percent more likely to enroll in college the next fall than were their peers who had no such assistance, a study released last week shows.

The report details the results of an experiment designed to measure the effects that simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and providing personalized financial-aid eligibility information might have on students’ likelihood of applying for and obtaining aid, and enrolling in college.

Researchers from Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Toronto, and the National Bureau of Economic Research teamed up with H&R Block to offer FAFSA help to nearly 17,000 low- and moderate-income families in Ohio and North Carolina who used the company to file their 2008 tax returns.

Using software and procedures developed by the researchers and adapted by H&R Block, the tax-preparation workers offered to help families complete the FAFSA, which typically takes more than a dozen hours to complete. Because their tax information, which forms the bulk of the 102-question FAFSA, had already been submitted and could be imported into the financial-aid form, the FAFSA was finished in less than 10 minutes. The tax preparers also generated personalized financial-aid eligibility estimates based on the families’ tax information.

The researchers randomly assigned the families into three groups: those who got help with the quick FAFSA submission and the aid-eligibility information, those who got only the aid-eligibility information, and those who got neither. They examined the effect of the help on 12th graders, on those who were already out of school but had not enrolled in college, and on those who had attended but not completed college.

Rising National Issue

The most pronounced effects were on high school seniors who received both types of help. Thirty percent more of them enrolled in college, 33 percent more won federal aid, and 39 percent more submitted FAFSAs than those in the control group, who did not get the assistance.

Young adults already out of high school benefited from the help as well. Twenty percent more of them enrolled in college, nearly three times as many completed the FAFSA, and 20 percent more won financial aid.

Among young people who had completed some college, 58 percent more of those who got both types of help from H&R Block submitted the federal financial-aid forms, and 13 percent more got financial aid than their counterparts who didn’t have the assistance. Their likelihood of getting financial aid was only marginally higher, though, and their chances of re-enrolling in college were no higher.

Receiving only the aid-eligibility information, without the FAFSA help, had a negligible effect on college aid and enrollment, the researchers found.

The role of the FAFSA as a barrier to college has been rising on the national radar, as President Barack Obama calls for more Americans to finish college. Earlier research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that the complex application is one reason many young people don’t apply to college. More than 40 percent of college students fail to file the form, even though most would qualify for some form of aid.

In response to such concerns, the U.S. Department of Education has introduced key FAFSA fixes. Recently, “skip logic” introduced into the online form has enabled some students to zoom past questions that don’t pertain to them. That feature will be expanded in January. Also at that time, some students will be able to “prepopulate” the form with their federal tax information, as the randomized study did through H&R Block, automatically inserting the tax information and shortening the process dramatically. Additional improvements are in the works.

Bridget Terry Long, one of the co-authors of the study and a professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said she and her fellow authors, Eric P. Bettinger of Stanford University’s school of education and Philip Oreopoulos of the University of Toronto, have been sharing results with officials from the federal government since March to help them streamline financial-aid applications.

‘Huge Effects’

The study’s findings answer key questions and provide reason for optimism, she said.

“We’ve proven that it can work and can have huge effects,” Ms. Long said. “We were hoping this would help families, but we didn’t have any guess [the effect] would be that large. Now, we’re thinking past just a tax-preparation office. We’re thinking about ways to help give families assistance with the rest of the form, and how we can put this online, get it into schools.”

Made available widely, she said, the system could also help nonprofit groups such as the National College Access Network, which hosts “College Goal Sundays” across the country to help families complete the FAFSA.

William McClintick, the director of counseling at Mercersburg Academy, a private high school of 430 students in south-central Pennsylvania, said having an easier way of completing the FAFSA would encourage families to expand their lists of target colleges.

“A lot of families are intimidated by the aid process, and that affects their choices,” he said. “They are going for the easiest and the cheapest [colleges] as opposed to taking a shot at the more expensive schools where they might get funding every bit as good.”

Pat Z. Smith, a veteran Florida guidance counselor who chairs the New York City-based College Board’s Guidance and Admissions Assembly, said that having tax information automatically imported into the FAFSA would be a godsend not only to students and parents, but also to overburdened high school guidance counselors.

“Prepopulation [with tax information] is what’s so important,” Ms. Smith said. “Most of the FAFSA is based on that. If that part was already done, it would really take the fear out of it. We know full well that many students are qualified and don’t apply. And some of it is the reluctance to deal with this form.”

The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides support to Education Week and its parent company, Editorial Projects in Education; the Spencer Foundation; the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences; the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week as Easier Aid Form Linked to Higher College-Going Rates

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