1 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us Sandy Baum, Michael McPherson, and Patricia Steele, Editors Sponsored by Lumina Foundation for Education
3 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us Sandy Baum, Michael McPherson, and Patricia Steele, Editors Sponsored by Lumina Foundation for Education w w w.c o l l e g e b o a r d.c o m
4 The College Board: Connecting Students to College Success The College Board is a not-for-profit membership association whose mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the association is composed of more than 5,400 schools, colleges, universities, and other educational organizations. Each year, the College Board serves seven million students and their parents, 23,000 high schools, and 3,500 colleges through major programs and services in college admissions, guidance, assessment, financial aid, enrollment, and teaching and learning. Among its best-known programs are the SAT, the PSAT/NMSQT, and the Advanced Placement Program (AP ). The College Board is committed to the principles of excellence and equity, and that commitment is embodied in all of its programs, services, activities, and concerns. For further information, visit In all of its book publishing activities the College Board endeavors to present the works of authors who are well qualified to write with authority on the subject at hand and to present accurate and timely information. However, the opinions, interpretations, and conclusions of the authors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the College Board or Lumina Foundation for Education, or their offices or employees. Nothing contained herein should be assumed to represent an official position of the College Board or any of its members. Editorial inquiries concerning this book should be directed to The College Board, 45 Columbus Avenue, New York, New York The College Board. College Board, Advanced Placement Program, AP, connect to college success, SAT, and the acorn logo are registered trademarks of the College Board. PSAT/NMSQT is a registered trademark of the College Board and National Merit Scholarship Corporation. All other programs and services may be trademarks of their respective owners. Visit the College Board on the Web:
5 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us Table of Contents Introduction...1 Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson What Do We Know About the Impact of Grants to College Students?....9 David S. Mundel The Impact of Student Loans on College Access Donald E. Heller Higher Education Tax Policies...69 Andrew Reschovsky Student Aid and Its Role in Encouraging Persistence Don Hossler, Mary Ziskin, Sooyeon Kim, Osman Cekic, and Jacob P. K. Gross Early Commitment of Student Financial Aid: Perhaps a Modest Improvement Saul Schwartz Rethinking Student Aid: Nontraditional Students Lucie Lapovsky Access, Choice, and Excellence: The Competing Goals of State Student Financial Aid Programs William R. Doyle Rethinking Student Aid: Learning from International Experience Janet S. Hansen Contributors List Index...215
6 Acknowledgments We would like to thank Janet Hansen, Kathleen Little, and the members of the Rethinking Student Aid Study Group for their work with the writers and their editorial assistance with the papers in this volume. The papers express the views of the authors only. We are grateful to Lumina Foundation for Education and the College Board for their support of this research.
7 Introduction Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson The papers in this volume assess the state of our knowledge about the effectiveness of existing student aid policies and programs. Federal and state governments, as well as colleges and universities themselves, devote considerable resources to assisting students in the payment of tuition and fees, room and board, and other costs associated with higher education. Nonetheless, significant gaps in college enrollment and success rates across income groups persist. While money is clearly only one of the problems contributing to these gaps, it is vital that we use our aid dollars as effectively as possible. In order to work toward the design of more effective student aid policies, the editors of this volume, under the auspices of the College Board and with financial assistance from the Mellon, Lumina, and Spencer Foundations, convened a group of researchers and other policy experts to develop proposals for reform of the federal student aid system. Lumina Foundation sponsored the research contained in this volume to provide a sound base of knowledge for the group s deliberations and for those who will receive and debate the emerging recommendations. A number of academic researchers have examined specific aspects of student financial aid policy. However, these academic papers do not provide an overview of the state of knowledge on the student aid system as a whole and its interdependent parts, nor do they clarify the apparent contradictions in the literature. Moreover, much of this literature is highly technical in nature and inaccessible to readers lacking advanced knowledge of statistics. The present volume is intended to provide an accessible synthesis of the existing research as it applies to the various types of student aid and the multiple goals of the system. Defining Effective Student Aid Policies The Rethinking Student Aid project defines the central goal of student aid as increasing educational opportunities for students facing severe financial constraints. Aid programs that merely subsidize college-going behaviors without increasing enrollment rates, altering the types of institutions students attend, or improving success and completion rates are not, according to this definition, meeting the challenge. The papers in this volume focus on evaluations of the effectiveness of existing student aid policies and the potential effectiveness of modifications to those policies in generating the desired changes in behavior. We assigned the authors of the papers in this volume the challenging task of making sense of the available information. The syntheses cover both the academic
8 2 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us literature and the sometimes less methodologically sophisticated policy analysis literature in an effort to develop the clearest possible statement of what we know, what ambiguities remain, and what our most informed decisions should be about how to improve the student aid system in order to promote educational opportunity. The papers in this volume made an important contribution to the Rethinking Student Aid deliberations, but it is important to stress that the views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily coincide with the project s final recommendations. The Papers Three papers in this volume focus on specific forms of student aid: grants, loans, and tax benefits. Two others focus on aspects of educational opportunity that have received inadequate attention in the design of most existing student aid programs facilitating preparation for college and promoting degree completion. These sections, centered around goals rather than particular types of aid, pose questions about the characteristics of programs in all categories of aid that hold the most promise for improving performance in these areas. A sixth paper addresses the particular problems of designing student aid policies for nontraditional students. It is important that student aid policy reform incorporate the needs of the sizeable population of older and part-time students who were not the central focus when most existing policies were designed. The final papers look to student aid programs in individual states and to student financing approaches of other countries in search of lessons that may be useful for the U.S. federal aid system. In the first paper, David Mundel examines the existing evidence on the effectiveness of grant programs in increasing educational opportunities. He relies on relevant work from other policy areas in addition to studies of student aid, emphasizes the processes and partnerships involved in increasing access to educational opportunity, and focuses on the role of complexity in diminishing the effectiveness of available grant dollars. Emphasizing the reality that small price changes have more impact on the decisions of low-income students than on others, Mundel finds convincing evidence that simplifying the system and improving communication would increase awareness and improve participation rates. There is considerable evidence that transparent, easy-to-predict grants do increase participation in higher education. Mundel argues that the failure of grant aid to meet expectations is due to a combination of poor program design and unrealistic expectations about how far student subsidies can go in reducing gaps in educational achievement.
9 Introduction 3 In his review of the research on the effectiveness of student loans, Don Heller confirms the tension between the positive role of loans in providing timely access to cash and the problematic aspects of the burdens imposed by loan aid. He emphasizes the limited effectiveness of loans relative to grants in expanding opportunities, but cites evidence that loans have a more significant role in improving the institutional choices available to students. The paper points to the importance of flexible repayment options, adequate federal loan limits, and information about the benefits of loans relative to the alternatives of additional work and part-time enrollment. Andrew Reschovsky examines the effectiveness of existing education tax credits and deductions in the third paper in this volume. The limited research on these relatively new policies confirms the logic that the complexity of the tax provisions, the fact that the benefit of the tax reductions generally comes long after the bills have been paid, and the exclusion of low-income students and families with little or no income tax liability from these programs mean that they have no measurable effect on participation in higher education. Reschovsky argues that making the tax credits refundable would increase the benefits to some current recipients whose subsidies are limited by the size of their tax liabilities, but would do little to help low-income families. This is because the credits and deductions cover only tuition and fees, and many low-income students receive grant aid to cover these charges. Only expansion of the credits to cover the entire cost of attendance would have a significant distributional impact. While he supports allowing the credit to cover other costs of attendance, Reshovsky finds that the federal role in making higher education more affordable might best be achieved by combining a simple and easily accessible grant program targeted to students from families with modest incomes with a set of tax subsidies targeted primarily to students from middle- and upper-middle-income families. Don Hossler s paper examines the research on the effectiveness of student aid in improving persistence and degree completion. Differences across income groups in college completion rates are even greater than differences in enrollment rates. Existing aid policies have not been designed with a focus on completion, and college success is now gaining attention as an important goal for public policy. Hossler finds that the most beneficial effect of financial aid may be that it increases students freedom to become more engaged in the academic and social environments of the institutions they attend and this may lead to increased student persistence. The existing empirical studies of the impact of aid on persistence have significant methodological shortcomings and no definitive conclusion emerges. The author does find some evidence that work aid could make important contributions to student persistence.
10 4 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us The idea of assuring young students that the funds to pay for college will be available if they are academically prepared has received increased attention in recent years. Several states and the governments of some other countries have instituted programs that actually award funds to young people years in advance of college and others that promise that grants will be awarded if the students meet specific conditions. In his paper, Saul Schwartz examines these policies and finds that partly because many of the programs are new and partly because of methodological problems, convincing evidence of the effectiveness of these programs in increasing college enrollment rates is scarce. Early commitment of Pell funds might accomplish as much as some of the more elaborate program designs. (An illustration of an early commitment program at the federal level would be one that made an enforceable promise to low-income families that their child would receive a Pell grant no smaller in inflation-adjusted terms than the one she would be eligible for at the time the promise was made.) As Lucie Lapovsky observes in her paper, the existing student aid system was designed with a primary focus on traditional-age college students who are financially dependent on their parents. However, a significant number of today s students are older and many attend part-time, frequently because of family and work responsibilities. A clear tension exists between facilitating financing options for these students and encouraging young people to enroll immediately after high school and to attend full-time in order to increase their chances of completing degrees. She poses questions about the adequacy of the current system for measuring financial need among independent students and weighs the possibility of designing an entirely separate system of support for older students. Will Doyle analyzes state student aid policies from the perspective of their focus on access, institutional choice, or rewarding excellence. Doyle uses particular states as exemplars of programs focusing on these differing goals. He finds that these distinctive state approaches could be instructive for thinking at the federal level, fulfilling the traditional state role as laboratories of democracy, but that federal policy tends to model itself at least as much on ineffective state approaches as on best practices. Doyle raises concerns about the impact of some state policies on persistence and emphasizes the importance of simplicity and of targeting aid at students who are at the margin of enrollment. In the final paper in this volume, Janet Hansen finds that the literature on international higher education finance is informative but offers little in the way of new ideas for U.S. policymakers. The United States already utilizes, to one degree or another, virtually all of the financing options that other countries have implemented, and country differences make the prospects for transferring policies problematic. However, improving the income contingency aspects of our student
11 Introduction 5 loan system and considering the distinction between tuition and fee charges and living costs are ideas emerging from other countries that are worthy of attention. Lessons for Future Research and Policy Analysis The overview of existing literature provided in this volume provides a valuable occasion for reflections about the future of analysis in this area. The research and policy literatures reviewed here are strikingly uneven in their attention to different populations, to different types of behavior, and to different types of policies. There has been far more attention to the impact of aid on initial access to college than on persistence and success in college, even though the latter is at least as important as the former. Enrollment of young people immediately after high school has been much more extensively studied than the behavior of adult and returning students, and there is much more evidence about the effectiveness of grant aid than about the behavioral impact of the loan aid that supplements grants. In thinking about future research, redressing some of the imbalance is, we think, worthwhile. Reviewing this literature also brings to mind the familiar tension in policyoriented research between rigor and relevance. How do we balance the demand for the highest possible standards of evidence against the need for information that bears directly and in a timely fashion on the decisions we need to make? This is a complex issue, on which we offer several observations. First, some of the questions on which we seek better knowledge are extremely difficult analytically and empirically. Trying to determine whether a particular observed behavior was caused by a particular policy is almost always enormously challenging. In recent years, the federal government s Institute of Education Sciences has shown much interest in supporting expensive and well-designed studies aimed at examining behavioral effects of policies in the field of education. Well-designed studies in which, for example, grant levels or loan availability are varied among randomly selected people are expensive and politically hard to achieve, but the results would more than pay for the cost of such studies if they produced more effective use of federal dollars. We think this agenda deserves attention from the federal government and other major funders of research. While such high-quality studies are highly desirable and we need more of them, it is important to resist the regrettable tendency among some analysts to value only evidence from such gold standard studies or to privilege certain methodologies. One can exercise judgment about evidence, both more and less formal, by determining how much weight to give each particular piece. That approach is in marked contrast to one that simply ignores certain kinds of evidence and treats other kinds as dispositive. The preferred approach is well
12 6 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us illustrated in several pieces in this volume, perhaps especially David Mundel s essay, which makes creative use of evidence that is not often brought to bear on discussions of the effectiveness of grant aid. A key requirement when drawing on evidence of any kind is to be alert to and candid about the flaws and limitations that are inevitably part of any study especially any study involving human beings. It is particularly tempting to overlook flaws in studies that produce a desired conclusion. This confirmation bias need not imply any bad faith or intentional manipulation, but just a very understandable psychological disposition. Saul Schwartz in this volume flags this problem in the context of studies of early awareness programs, where analysts may overlook the likely prospect that those who choose to participate in such programs are predisposed (independently of the effects of the program) to pursue higher education. Only strongly ingrained and institutionally supported traditions of self-criticism can keep such confirmation bias under control. A Framework for the Design of Policy Reform The consensus of the papers in this volume is that many questions remain about how to develop the most effective student aid policies, as well as about how far financial subsidies to college students can go in increasing opportunities for enrollment and success in higher education. It is not surprising that no blueprint for a new federal aid system emerges. Yet a number of clear principles are confirmed by the authors analyses. The importance of a simpler, more transparent student aid system comes through clearly. There is considerable evidence that programs that make it easy to understand how to get help with paying for college make a difference in enrollment decisions. The potential for early awareness and understanding of the availability of financing to improve college preparation and aspirations is encouraging. Succeeding in college is an undertaking that requires both financial and academic preparation, and early awareness and early commitment programs have promise as vehicles to get that preparation under way. It seems clear that the absence of policies specifically designed to meet goals such as increasing completion rates and supporting adult students is problematic. The real aim is not simply that people should touch college but that they should have college experiences that make a difference in their lives. Current federal programs give much more attention to getting students through the college door than in encouraging their success after they arrive.
13 Introduction 7 An obvious challenge is simplifying the process while tailoring programs to meet the multiple goals of the student aid system. Achieving more clarity about what the goals of aid are and how particular programs address those goals is essential to improving the student aid system. Examination of the variety of existing types of student aid programs suggests that none can work miracles. All are imperfect and, while some make more difference than others, none is entirely without merit. The optimal federal student aid system is not likely to depend on only one means of financing. Appropriate targeting to diminish the inequities and inefficiencies in existing programs will strengthen the system. No perfect model exists, either among current federal programs or in any individual state or any other country. But the analyses that follow do support the idea that the student aid system already makes a significant difference in the level of educational opportunity in the United States. Many judgment calls will be necessary in designing modifications to existing policies, but the potential for increased impact certainly exists and the ideas expressed in these papers provide a valuable beginning. Despite the inconclusive nature of much of the existing evidence and the need for further study, policy reform cannot await more definitive research. We know enough about what does and does not work to move forward with constructive attempts to redesign the student aid system. Postponing action can only postpone the necessary steps toward meeting our educational opportunity goals.
15 What Do We Know About the Impact of Grants to College Students? David S. Mundel Student grants have long played an important role in financing postsecondary education. However, many observers are disappointed with the impact of grant programs because the goal of equalizing access to higher education remains elusive. In part, disappointment results from unrealistic expectations, inadequate program funding, and far-from-perfect program operations. Moreover, researchers have failed to make all of their relevant knowledge accessible to policymakers, and policymakers have failed to use the available knowledge in designing programs. This review is directed toward assessing what we know about grant program effectiveness and, based on this knowledge, suggesting approaches that can improve program effectiveness. Based on this review, the most promising approaches include those aimed at increasing the impact of grants on middle and early high school students and their parents, increasing the impact of grants during the later high school years, and increasing the impact of grants by expanding the collaboration of individuals, organizations, institutions, and governments in program efforts. Introduction and Background The price of college facing prospective students and their families has long been a focus of public and private concern. Many of these concerns have been directed toward the impact of price on the college plans and the enrollment rates and patterns of lower-income, minority, and other groups of potential students with restricted college-going opportunities. These concerns have led the federal government (along with states, colleges, and others) to increasingly provide grants to college students to reduce the net price of postsecondary education. For example, toward the end of WWII, the Servicemen s Readjustment Act of 1944 (better known as the GI Bill of Rights) authorized the funding of grants that reduced the price of college facing returning veterans. Two decades later (in the midst of the War on Poverty), the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965 authorized the Educational Opportunity Grant program to provide grants to needy students attending colleges and universities. A few years later, in 1972, the Act was amended and the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant program (subsequently renamed the Pell program) was authorized to provide direct grants to low and moderate income students. The 1972 Amendments also authorized federal matching grants to states to encourage states to provide direct grants to students.
16 10 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us As a result, grants to college students are now a major component of American higher education finance. In academic year , grants to undergraduates amounted to about $52 billion. In total, these grants represent roughly half of the total tuition and fee charges undergraduate students would otherwise owe. The federal government provided $16.5 billion in grants, states added $7.5 billion, colleges and universities supplied almost $21 billion in grants and price discounts, and employers and other private donors contributed about $7 billion. (The College Board, 2007a, 2007b). In spite of the growing importance of student grants, their impact has been modest, at best. The college-going and graduation rates of lower-income youth remain significantly below those of their higher-income counterparts, even after controlling for differences in high school completion rates and student ability and achievement levels. Furthermore, the rates of enrollment at different types of colleges remain very different for lower-income and higher-income collegegoers. Some evidence suggests that this stratification by college type may have increased during recent years (Dynarski, 2000; Kane, 2001; McPherson and Schapiro, 2006a), though the gap between the rates at which lower- and middleincome youth enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school narrowed slightly during the years (Mundel, 2006). Our research-based understanding of how student grants affect the collegegoing rates and patterns of lower-income and minority youth, and of how changes in grant programs might affect enrollment rates and patterns, is limited (Kane, 2001; Mundel and Coles, 2004; Long, 2006). This paper summarizes what is known about the impact of grants to college students and what this knowledge suggests about strategies that might increase grant program effectiveness. It draws on the higher education research literature and on research in related fields concerned with youth behavior and policies. The paper s findings are limited by shortcomings in the research itself. For example, many of the potentially important impacts of grants and changes in grant programs are not well addressed or not addressed at all in the existing literature. Researchers face analytical difficulties in assessing what would have happened to students in the absence of a particular program and in isolating the effects of different kinds of student aid (e.g., grants versus loans). Furthermore, research studies often appear to have inconclusive results because findings do not meet standard tests of statistical significance, even though these standards may not be entirely appropriate in studies with small sample sizes and data that are highly variable (or noisy ). Another issue is that most research studies implicitly assume that the interesting policy problem is whether or not a program, as a whole, works. All too often, evaluations fail to address the incremental program design choices
17 What Do We Know About the Impact of Grants to College Students? 11 that frequently confront policymakers and analysts. These are problems that the current review cannot overcome. Actually, a reasonable picture of the effectiveness of grant aid is available if we are willing to make use of a combination of well-established theories, understandings based on conceptual reasoning, evidence from other domains, and reasonably conclusive empirical research rather than limiting ourselves solely to knowledge derived from seemingly conclusive, highly statistically significant, empirical analyses. Questions That Guide the Search for Strategies for Improving Student Grant Program Performance Students college-going aspirations, plans, and choices and their persistence and ultimate success in college are the results of a complex set of processes that start well before the junior and senior years of high school. The search for evidence about the impact of grants can usefully be structured by attempting to answer seven questions: 1. How do grant programs affect student and parental decisions and behaviors during middle school and early high school years that may influence college participation? 2. How do grant programs affect student and parental decisions and behaviors during later high school years that may influence college participation? 3. How do student grant programs affect enrollment rates and decisions about where and how (e.g., full-time; part-time) to attend? 4. How do student grant programs affect the actions of other actors, including high schools, colleges, and state policymakers? 5. What operational and other factors may be limiting the effectiveness of current grant programs, particularly the Pell program? 6. How do grant programs affect the college-going decisions and behaviors of former high school students who have not enrolled in college immediately following high school? 7. How do grant programs affect college persistence, performance, success, and completion, and return to college after leaving, if students do not enroll continuously? This paper concentrates on the first four of these questions, with just a few comments on the last three. Only limited research has been directed toward answering the fifth question; Questions 6 and 7 get more extensive treatment in two other papers commissioned for the Rethinking Student Aid project.
18 12 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us Question 1 How do grant programs affect student and parental decisions and behaviors during middle school and early high school years in ways that may influence college participation? Research suggests that changes in grant programs could reduce perceptions of financial barriers and alter the college-going expectations and educational behaviors of younger students and their parents. First, expanding and improving grant-related information activities could improve perceptions of college affordability. Second, simplifying the currently complex programs could further increase awareness and understanding of the role of grants in making college more affordable, particularly among targeted potential recipients, their parents, and their teachers and counselors. Most middle school and early high school students and their parents believe that going to college is important and most expect that these students will attend and graduate from college. These views are widely held by teenagers from all different types of families rich, poor, Asian, black, Hispanic, and white (Schneider, 2003; Long, 2004). Although many research studies have explored these college-going aspirations and expectations, there has been relatively little research about the formation of these beliefs during the middle school and early high school years. There has been even less research about the role that college prices and grants play in the formation of these beliefs (Mundel and Coles, 2004). 1 In addition, although many younger students and their parents appear to have little, if any, knowledge about the actual price of college, those that report they have some knowledge tend to overestimate the price (see, for example, Horn, Chen, and Chapman, 2003). In general, it also appears that those families that are most likely to find college unaffordable lower-income families are the most likely to report that they lack information about college prices or if they have information, the most likely to overestimate the price of college. The frequency and size of these overestimates of price are greater when parents are asked to estimate the price of public colleges those colleges that are most frequently the choice of lower-income youth who are on the margin of attending or not attending college. There is also evidence suggesting that younger lower-income students (seventhgraders) and their parents believe that the price of college is an important factor in determining whether or not they will fulfill their college-going aspirations and 1 There has also been little research that demonstrates that the opportunity to attend college is a primary motivator of high school performance and completion among students for whom college-going, in general, and enrollment at a selective college, in particular, is a relatively unlikely post-high school behavior.
19 What Do We Know About the Impact of Grants to College Students? 13 expectations. In a survey of seventh-graders attending GEAR UP 2 middle schools and comparable schools with high proportions of low-income enrollees, almost half (46 percent) of the students who reported that they would definitely or probably attend college reported that if they do not enroll in college, it will be because it costs too much. 3 Lack of information regarding many factors (potentially including information about college prices and grant programs) plays a role in structuring the formation of early attitudes toward college-going. Schneider reports that although highly ambitious, many teenagers will not fulfill their expectations, not because they are unwilling to work hard for grades or believe that school is unimportant to their future lives, but because they lack important information that would help them form effective strategies for successfully navigating the transition process after graduation. Schneider goes on to point out that this is particularly the case for teenagers whose families have limited economic and social resources (Schneider, 2003; Perna, 2004). 4 In addition, limited opportunities to attend college (both real and perceived) may increase the likelihood that students leave high school prior to graduating. Although most studies of dropping out report that the decision to drop out is the result of a long-term disengagement from school and schooling, few of these studies have attempted to assess the role of post-high school opportunities on dropping out (Barton, 2005). Misperceptions about possibilities for college-going may contribute to this disengagement and thus to dropping out of high school. There has been little higher education-specific research focused on the formation of college financing perceptions and the impact of these perceptions on behaviors during the middle school and early high school years (Mundel and Coles, 2004). As a result, there is little concrete evidence about how the availability of information about grants or commitments of grant support during these early years would alter either perceptions of college affordability or college-oriented behaviors. But theories from several disciplines (e.g., economics and psychology) 2 GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) This discretionary grant program is designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. GEAR UP provides six-year grants to states and partnerships to provide services at high-poverty middle and high schools. 3 Unpublished GEAR UP survey data provided by U.S. Department of Education staff, August This survey is described in U.S. Department of Education, National Evaluation of GEAR UP, 2003 and U.S. Department of Education, Early Effects of the GEAR UP Program, See also, Doo Hwan Kim and Barbara Schneider, Social Capital in Action: Alignment of Parental Support in Adolescents Transition to Postsecondary Education, 2003.
20 14 The Effectiveness of Student Aid Policies: What the Research Tells Us and empirical research in other youth-oriented policy domains e.g., antismoking, anti-drug, anti-drinking activities and military recruiting suggest that perceptions can be influenced by information and that early perceptions can be important determinants of later behaviors. 5 Because the college-going decision is often a one-time decision, made following a complex series of planning and other activities by middle and high school youth and their parents, perceptions that frame the eventual decision or create firmly grounded, default decisions are probably quite important. (Morgan and Henrion, 1990). Available research from other domains suggests that perceptions may be easier to change early when they are being formed than later when they are more solidly or firmly held. Changing these early perceptions may not require early commitments or guarantees of grant support. 6 But, given the pervasiveness of misperceptions about price and affordability, and the relative ease and inexpensiveness of informationoriented activities, it is important to inform parents and younger middle and high school students about the low prices of public institutions, about the availability of grants, and about how low tuition and grants can make college affordable. Several barriers may limit the effectiveness of information activities aimed at reducing misperceptions about affordability among middle- and early-high school students and their parents. The complexity of the current higher education system, with thousands of colleges and universities having different prices and different tuition discounting and grant policies, is a challenge in fostering better understanding of college affordability. But this problem may not be as serious as it first appears because most students (particularly lower- and moderate-income students) consider a relatively limited set of college alternatives. Moreover, available technologies make it relatively easy to customize an information campaign for particular students. Another major barrier to an information effort is the complexity of many individual grant programs. Many analysts suggest reducing this complexity by simplifying the application process. But simplification of grant programs 5 Research in these domains includes empirical studies of specific interventions and in some cases, clinical trials involving randomized controls in order to better assess causeeffect relationships. In some cases, the empirical studies involve nonrandomized controls in which individuals in one jurisdiction receive a treatment and their behavioral and/or attitudinal changes are compared to those of similar individuals in which a programmatic treatment was not implemented. 6 The potential impact of early grant commitments is reviewed in a paper by Saul Schwartz in this volume.
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