Closing the College Attendance Gap Between Rich and Poor

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.