It's been well documented that many college-bound students don't apply for federal financial aid because they don't believe they would be eligible to receive aid. But new research from the National College Access Network (NCAN) suggests the problem might be more deeply rooted in students' lack of understanding of financial aid for higher education.
Although the sample size of the survey is small – 150 low-income students ages 17 to 20 – and cannot accurately reflect the entire student population, the results give more insight into why exactly students do not apply for financial aid. Half of the students surveyed applied for financial aid, while the other half did not. And NCAN found that of those who did not apply, more than half said they “don't know anything about financial aid."
Until now, the most comprehensive survey gathering information about why students do not apply for financial aid – the 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS) – found that about 45 percent of students said they believed they were ineligible for aid. But according to NCAN's research, that option might have been a “catchall" for students who did not know if they were eligible.
“It is important to make this distinction as the opportunity for intervention shifts," the survey said. “Students who do not think they are eligible will already have a strong understanding of why and might not seek further information. But students who do not know they are eligible might apply if information regarding eligibility were made more easily available to them."
Essentially, the question of whether students believe they are eligible for aid is irrelevant if students do not know anything about financial aid.
For example, the survey asked students to identify the types of financial aid that they knew about. While those who had applied for aid responded, “FAFSA," “scholarships," “grants," and “loans," among other things, more than two-thirds of those who did not apply responded, “None," or gave inaccurate responses, such as “food stamps" and “food/housing."
“These responses make it difficult to assume that these same participants would know their status regarding eligibility," the survey said.
“Importantly, this seemingly small nuance, which might seem like semantics, leads to vastly different actions and attitudes on the part of students and therefore different opportunities to intervene and provide information to assist students before they give up on applying for financial aid," the survey later continued.
While some have suggested that low FAFSA completion rates may be partly the result of a lack of information about financial aid, NCAN's survey argues that there is no shortage of information – the information just is not being targeted to the right students.
Additionally, students who did not apply for financial aid were less confident that they could rely on their schools for support, and were more likely to feel like they did not have school resources to help. Nearly three-quarters of those who applied for aid (73 percent) agreed with the statement, “There are plenty of people I can ask about financial aid at my school," while just 34 percent of those who did not apply for aid agreed.
“Students who did not apply were either misinformed or uninformed about how they could
acquire aid and, more importantly, about what aid was in general," the survey said. “While this may be obvious, the reasons why they lacked information are not, particularly when the information is readily available. It appears that there are a number of reasons why students in our sample are misinformed or uninformed."
While certain students would benefit from one-on-one assistance, there also needs to be a broad message to all students. To that end, NCAN recently launched its Form Your Future campaign “conveying the basic message that students can get money for college," and encouraging students to fill out the FAFSA.
Publication Date: 10/6/2016