If you’ve ever tried filling out your own tax return, you’re no doubt familiar with the frustration that often comes from deciphering government documents. Many parents feel exactly the same way when they try to tackle the FAFSA — the free application for federal financial aid. While the application may be free, it often costs many hours of aggravation to complete it. Now a new study has found that helping low- and moderate-income parents with the FAFSA might be a good way to start closing the college attendance gap between rich and poor.

In The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment, co-authors Eric Bettinger, Bridget Terry Long, Philip Oreopoulos, and Lisa Sanbonmatsu report on the results of a random assignment experiment. One group of low- and moderate-income families received help completing the FAFSA from H & R Block tax professionals. They also were given an estimate of how much government aid they might receive along with information about local college options. A control group received personalized aid eligibility information, but did not get any assistance with the FAFSA.  When the researchers compared the two groups, they found that those who completed the FAFSA with the help of H & R Block were substantially more likely to not only submit the financial aid form, but also enroll in college the following fall and qualify for more financial aid.

 While all kinds of approaches have been tried over the years to increase college attendance rates among low-income students, this study involving 23,000 people suggests that one answer may lie in helping families gain access to financial aid. The low-income families who were not expected to contribute to their child’s college expenses were the ones who benefitted the most from the intervention.



Jane says:

As a parent of an extremely high achieving son being recruited by many top flight universities, I have found that the universities whose admissions or financial aid departments answer my questions thoroughly, cheerfully and without rushing are most likely the universities I encourage my son to consider. I have raised him alone and due to a major medical problem, lost my career and savings. Top, challenging, nationally recognized universities who can give me a reasonable expectation (not a promise) that my son will be able to attend without financial problems or a heavy debt burden and without a heavy work-study burden are on the top of my list because I want my son to focus on his studies. He’s an extremely hard worker and will work himself into poor health if allowed to. I don’t want him to miss out on college life like I did when I attended college and worked three jobs. I want him to grow intellectually.

Having said that, I believe there are some universities who may in fact meet all his demonstrated financial need, but their financial aid departments are so vague and dismissive that I project that working with them after admissions may be a challenge. That may in fact not be true. It may be that the person who takes the calls is simply not aware of how significant their approach is in a parent’s view of the university. If they are the first person the parent talks to, they are the person who creates the first impression of that university. While calling several universities, I found that some are extremely encouraging while others who are in fact not as prestigious can refer a parent to the Department of Education web site and seem glad to get off the phone.

If MIT and Stanford are easier to work with than another university, how can that university compete for the top students? Today I called a small but elite newer college, and found that they were far less helpful than the MITs and Stanfords. In a way, it makes sense because they cannot hire the best, but in a way it doesn’t because they are trying to compete. I wonder if they are complacent too early in their history.

The changes that have been made to the FAFSA application this year, include the availability of live help with the form- while people are doing it.