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A ‘magic bullet’ for student aid applications

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Esther Cepeda
May 7, 2012
— Public policy wonks are always looking for magic bullets that have a shot at making a real impact. Every once in a while, one seems to come along.

Take the intractable issue of getting high school seniors to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). High school teachers, guidance counselors and college access organizations across the country know the FAFSA as the mechanism for connecting the neediest students to federal and state grants, work-study awards, and loans for college.


But to low-income high school students and their parents, who believe college is key to a prosperous life but probably out-of-the-question expensive, the FAFSA is a second—and sometimes more daunting—spring gantlet to run after a fall’s worth of completing college applications.


It’s an exhausting form—at more than 100 questions, it’s four times longer than the simplest tax return—filled with prompts that are meant to be clear but often result in confusion.


Parents of children who would be the first in their family to go to college have often remarked in frustration that you practically need a university degree to complete the darned thing. Having been trained in the art of completing FAFSAs, I’d have to agree. They’re relatively straightforward for a “nuclear family” but a confusing minefield for foster children, U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, and many others.


The magic bullet, then? Professional help.


Sure, this sounds obvious to solidly middle-class family families used to drawing on diverse resources when they need them. Unfortunately, student loan data have recently shown an uptick in low-income students taking on far-riskier private loans because of their fear of the FAFSA and a lack of help navigating it.


“The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions,” a new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, offers a tantalizing avenue to ensuring that the neediest students get their FAFSAs filed: tax preparers.


Researchers from Stanford University, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the University of Toronto, in partnership with H&R Block, found that when families with incomes of less than $45,000 sought tax preparation help and were then offered immediate assistance with filing the FAFSA—which, with the help, took a mere 8 minutes to complete—their college attendance rates went up.


Best of all, the findings seem to indicate that this nudge even helped keep students in school for subsequent years, increasing the likelihood of graduation.


The research underscores the high degree of hand-holding that families with no prior college experience need to navigate the higher education system.


It also points out the tremendous challenge of getting more low-income families to seek out tax preparation and college financial aid help—and that ensuring such services will be available in communities that have historically been underserved in these areas.


After all, we can tell low-income families that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help until we’re blue in the face, but magic bullets have to be widely available for them to make a difference on a large scale.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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