Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A little nudge toward college

One of the current major public policy goals in the US is to increase the number of students going to college. Historically, children from lower to moderate income families have been less likely to enroll, even if they've done well enough in school that college is a possibility.

Money is obviously one barrier, but there is at least some financial help out there in the form of Pell grants (and loans) from the government. The problem? Policy makers have long suspected that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has inadvertently become a barrier by being too complicated.

So over the past few years, some folks who care about this issue have been running a fascinating study. Many low-to-moderate income families get help with tax prep. Why not have tax professionals help these families with high school aged kids fill out FAFSA at the same time?

The results, according to publications of this study, have been positive. When families visiting H&R Block got help filling out FAFSA, their children were more likely to enroll in college vs. a control group that got information about financial aid eligibility, but didn't get any help actually filling out the forms.

Going to college is a huge decision, and earning a degree can have a massive financial benefit in one's life. So it's disconcerting that something as simple as a complicated form can have such a deterrent effect. It gets at the point of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's book, Nudge -- that choices can be profoundly influenced by small things, like how easy something is, and whether someone you trust behaves in a way that shows a choice is a good idea. Given how simple this is to have tax preparers help with FAFSA, it seems like a good policy to pursue.


Anonymous said...

If the FAFSA form is too complicated for you, how do you expect to pass collegiate level courses?

Anittah Patrick said...

@Anonymous, are you suggesting that collegiate level courses are the intellectual equivalent of filling out complicated forms?

I've heard that law school is a lot like filling out complicated forms, but my undergraduate experience involved critical thinking, not filling in Kafka-esque boxes. Granted, I didn't attend the best school in the country, but my alma mater isn't too shabby either.

My theory is that it is not about filling out the form or its complexity, but rather, the fear and uncertainty that surround it as well as the larger bureaucratic process in which it is mired.

My takeaway from this blog post is to begin developing a quick quiz and tutorial for the FAFSA, to launch on my fiscal fitness site.

nicoleandmaggie said...

That's a great study, and has already resulted in major policy changes. The FAFSA is now a 2 page much less complicated document than what most of us had to deal with.

Re: the anonymous comment. It's not the kids filling out the FAFSA that's the problem, it's the parents. They're the ones with the necessary information.

Evan Adams said...

Most 18 year olds do not fill out their own FAFSAs. And many working-class parents find complicated forms kind of paralyzing, even assuming that they have the level of literacy and English language skills necessary to fill them out. Some parents may not know some of the information required to fill out a FAFSA off the top of their heads either, or may have complications in their financial history that they're afraid the FAFSA will reveal. Another solution might be to get rid of the age-based "dependent student"/"independent student" divide and just let kids apply by themselves without including parent information.