Systemic Strategies for Early Awareness of Financial Aid

July 16, 2015
By Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

One challenge that college access programs continue to face: What to do when high school students self-select out of the college track because they don’t think higher education is a financial option? For years, many in the college access and success community have said, if only we could let students in middle school know they’d likely be eligible for financial aid, they would make different choices. Advocates frequently mentioned the solution: early awareness through federal means-tested benefit programs, but not until now have researchers explored the question of “how.”

In hopes of answering this question, NCAN partnered with the Urban Institute to commission research from senior fellow Sandy Baum, and researchers Sarah Minton and Lorraine Blatt. The results are released in a new report, Delivering Early Information about College Financial Aid: Exploring the Options for Middle School Students.

The authors’ goal was to explore which federal programs would be most effective to achieve the goal of notifying low-income middle school students of their likely eligibility for federal financial aid. Baum, Minton, and Blatt investigated several programs [Free and reduced-price lunch as part of the National School Lunch Program; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants, and Children; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Child care subsidies (Child Care and Development Fund); Housing subsidies (Housing Choice Vouchers), and Medicaid] as well as using the federal tax code. They concluded:

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and the federal income tax filing process emerge as the most promising routes for communicating with the parents of middle school children because of the large populations they serve, the characteristics of their participants, and their administrative structures.

The combination of these three factors is the key. In order for this approach to have a benefit, it must reach a critical mass of low-income families. The administrative structures of the programs must be designed to allow for this type of outreach to be feasible. The authors considered providing information at the time application/filing, reaching out to families post application/filing and providing information in a broader package of information for low-income families. 

Ultimately, Baum, Minton, and Blatt concluded that, “a concerted effort to promote early awareness of financial aid opportunities should involve multiple strategies.” Specific examples as listed in the report include:

  • Working with the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services to provide information to their eligible population;
  • Taking advantage of the SNAP certification of automatic free and reduced-price lunch eligibility;
  • Incorporating Pell Grant calculators into tax preparation software; 
  • Coordinating information about the earned income tax credit and financial aid eligibility; and
  • Working toward Internal Revenue Service participation in providing information to parents. 
To have the impact at the magnitude we desire, all of these strategies should be explored. Doing so will guarantee that the most families hear the message and that they hear it at least once. The paper is clear: implementing this outreach will not be easy. However, it is plausible with inter-agency cooperation, and if done at the recommended large scale, it will make an impact.

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