Financial Aid Policies and Practices as Impediments to Low-Income Student Access to Higher Education

By Pulcini, Brad | College and University, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Financial Aid Policies and Practices as Impediments to Low-Income Student Access to Higher Education


Pulcini, Brad, College and University


The FAFSA

Goldrick-Rab (2016) examines how current financial aid policies and models hinder low-income and marginalized students from having the same access to higher education as their more affluent peers. The total cost of higher education and limited access to grants, loans, and scholarship programs continue to impede low income students' access to higher education (Gold-rick-Rab 2016). Although mechanisms are in place to provide students with necessary aid, a significant percentage of low-income students do not access that aid.

The FAFsA is typically perceived as a barrier to lowincome students' access to higher education (Goldrick-Rab 2016, Perez-Antonia 2016). The FAFSA is a federal form that students and families must file to establish an individual student's eligibility for federal grant and loan monies (Federal Student Aid n.d.). The greater families' financial need, the more aid they are eligible for. Research suggests that many low-income students who would be eligible for federal aid and grant dollars fail to complete the FAFSA (Bettinger et al. 2009; King 2004). Many perceive the form as complicated and difficult to complete, sometimes requiring verification of a number of documents that many low-income students and families have difficulty obtaining (Harrison and Price 2017).

If access to higher education is to increase, then filing the FAFSA-especially on the part of low-income students-is important. A number of studies show that failure to apply for and obtain need-based aid dollars negatively influences students' propensity to enroll in college (Cornwell, Mustard and Sridhar 2006; Dynarski 2000; Goldrick-Rab et al. 2016). The federal government now allows more time for families to complete the FAFSA: The FAFSA for the upcoming academic year is available in October of the previous year, a practice referred to as "early FAFSA." Since this shift in policy in fall 2016, it has been suggested that students and families now have more time to complete the financial aid application process (Page, Castleman and Meyer 2016). Having additional time to complete the FAFSA is important for low-income students, especially since this population may not complete the form in a timely manner (Feeney and Heroff 2013). Early FAFSA does not resolve the issue that low-income students and families often lack the necessary knowledge and cultural capital to successfully complete the form (Denning and Dynarski 2009; Harrison and Price 2017).

Research shows that a way to increase the number of low-income students who file the FAFSA and, consequently, to increase college enrollment by members of this group would be to provide personalized assistance in completing the form (Bettinger et al. 2009). Lack of information is not a barrier to low-income students' completion of the FAFsA; rather, the lack of understanding how to complete the form and to comply with requirements and verification processes is the primary barrier (Denning and Dynarski 2009). Knowing the importance of personal assistance to low-income students' completion of the FAFSA, financial aid offices at all types of higher education institutions should seek to provide such assistance.

Yet research also shows that many students do not find the assistance they need at university financial aid offices (Rosenbaum, Deil-Amen and Person 2006). Financial aid offices typically do not have the number of staff needed to provide in-person support to guide students through the financial aid process (Goldrick-Rab 2016). In a recent study, a head administrator at a large public university reported having only one financial aid administrator for every 1,000 applicants to the school (Goldrick-Rab 2016). Recent surveys have found that staff at a number of financial aid offices throughout the country feel they are under-resourced and face moderate to severe resource shortages (Goldrick-Rab 2016). Institutions have been slow to increase financial aid operating budgets, even though the number of financial aid applicants has increased substantially (Goldrick-Rab 2016). …

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