Finding Money on the Table: Information, Financial Aid, and Access to College

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Recent research suggests that low-income high school students do not prepare for college because they believe a post-secondary education is expensive and unaffordable (Grodsky & Jones, 2004; Luna De La Rosa, 2006; Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 2005; Tierney & Venegas, 2007).Corresponding research has documented how financial aid shifted during the last generation from grants to loans and from income-based scholarships to merit aid (Baum, 2006; Dowd & Coury, 2006; Doyle, 2005; Heller, 1999). These studies conclude that more financial aid should be awarded to the most economically disadvantaged. A variety of programs, such as the privately funded "I Have a Dream" (IHAD) and the publicly funded Indiana's Twenty-first Century Scholars, have developed what is now known as "early commitment" aid. If a student meets the program's requirements and achieves its academic standards, then the student receives a college scholarship. Several state programs promise similar assistance through merit or entitlement grants. Private and state programs also commit to providing aid, assuring that students who receive the highest levels of aid are the most academically prepared. There is a difference, however, in the type of support services these programs offer in terms of: (a) helping students understand how to navigate the financial aid application process, and (b) preparing them academically to be eligible for participation in these special programs.

We do not quarrel with the assumption that increasing financial aid would boost college going. Yet a conundrum exists. Some state agencies have the potential to provide more resources than what college-bound students request. The federal government also has an excess of money in various aid programs (King, 2006). Of course, we do not ignore the reality that is does not make sense to allot more money than might be needed--budget surpluses are as unwelcome as budget deficits (St. John & Byce, 1982). However, the possibility that students who are truly qualified for aid but do not receive it, set off alarms that precipitate further inquiry (Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance, 2002, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Not only are there students who miss out on higher levels of financial aid because they are not adequately academically prepared, but there are also those who are eligible and who qualify for aid but do not apply for it. At a time when most scholars advise that postsecondary education is necessary for gainful employment, why are academically qualified low-income students not drawing on available funds for a college education?

To help answer this question and inform the discussion about financial aid we offer here an additional framework for consideration--what we call the "cultural ecological model." The cultural ecological model builds upon what is known about how students make (or do not make) the decision to go to college. In this case, the model focuses on financial aid access and the contexts that affect aid availability. Our work, like the work of many of others (Perna, 2007; St. John, 2003, 2005, 2006, forthcoming; Tierney & Venegas, forthcoming; Wooden, forthcoming) suggest that there are multiple environmental influences that play a role in access to financial aid. We posit that the ideas that flow from such a model may help to increase college going. We first offer an overview of the literature and discuss the theoretical framework driving the research. Then we delineate financial aid programs in three states with different types of funding programs--California, Nevada, and Kansas--to demonstrate that students and families lack information about how much college costs and how to access aid for college.

One of our main concerns is that student decision-making patterns are not linear. While much of the early commitment literature works from a rational choice framework, students do not. …


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