Capture Blog

Is the Financial Aid Process A Barrier to College?

Microsoft co-founder and retired chief executive Bill Gates was dispensing book recommendations last month like a seasoned literary critic. First, he made news with a commencement speech-like tweet storm that urged new college graduates to read The Better Angels of Our Nature, the 2011 bestseller by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.

He followed that up with a summer reading list, which included five books that “shed new light on how our experiences shape us and where humanity might be headed,” he wrote in his blog.

On that list, he included Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s hugely popular memoir from last year about growing up in an impoverished, chaotic household in Rust Belt Ohio and escaping those circumstances with the help of his tenacious grandmother, the U.S. Marine Corp. and success in college.

Vance went on to graduate from The Ohio State University and Yale Law School.

Hillbilly Elegy was discussed during a recent episode of The WeightList, Capture Higher Ed’s expansive, freewheeling, beer-fueled data science podcast hosted by Thom Golden and Brad Weiner.

“[Vance] writes pretty extensively about how higher education really was his ladder for upward mobility,” Weiner says.

A section of the book about applying for financial aid should get the attention of anyone in enrollment management. Vance writes how he and his grandma struggled to make sense of complex financial aid forms — a struggle that contributed to him postponing his college plans. (For the better as it turned out.)

This led Weiner to look into some numbers on students who do not fill out the financial aid forms. One study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 20 percent of undergraduate students did not apply for any financial aid in the 2011-12 year.

“When you disaggregate that by academic sector it kind of goes all over the map — 30 percent of students in public, two-year institutions (did not apply) … all the way down to 5 percent of students in for-profit (institutions did not apply). That 20 percent sort of lumps everybody together.”

Nerdwallet.com, a financial advice site, found that 1.4 million high school graduates did not fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid in 2014. Of course, not every student who graduates from high school goes on to college, but of those 1.4 million, an estimated 747,000 and change — 51.7 percent — would potentially be Pell eligible, according to the website.

“It’s an interesting conversation,” Weiner says. “There are these federal dollars available, and you need to fill out paperwork that is, according to this book, very difficult and complicated. It does present a considerable barrier to enter into colleges and universities.”

If you believe that “a problem well defined is a problem half solved,” Golden says, the questions become, how can we get more people to fill out the FAFSA? Can we make it simpler? Does it have to be this onerous?

“Of course, PPY [Prior Prior Year] helped,” Golden says. “It expanded it and moved it outward. But it certainly isn’t enough.”

The results of PPY, the recent change to the FAFSA that allows students to apply earlier (Oct. 1) and use tax information from an earlier year, are still inconclusive. We have to wait until next year to find out its impact on the financial aid process.

By Kevin Hyde, Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed

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