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Breaking Down Red-Tape Barriers to College


As college application season is coming to a close, parents and kids are embarking on a more daunting task: figuring out how to pay for college. Unfortunately, difficulties in navigating the financial aid process can result in many students forgoing college altogether. Could there be a better way to help kids get beyond this single but life altering barrier?

Stanford researcher Eric Bettinger did a study recently in which H&R Block took data from peoples' tax forms to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for their high school seniors. The cost of doing this was trivial, yet the benefits were huge. Children of parents randomly assigned to have their FAFSA done by H&R Block were significantly more likely to go to college than kids randomly assigned to a control group. To my knowledge, there is no more effective way of increasing the college attendance of kids who might or might not go, and this one costs almost nothing.

It so happens that my son was going into a Master's program in Florida and had to fill out a FAFSA. Knowing about the H&R Block study, I suggested he take it to H&R Block office near him that had just done his tax forms. Needless to say, they didn't provide the service. I've since learned that even though H&R Block paid for Bettinger's study (with the help of grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and other sources), their offices rarely offer the FAFSA service.

I tell this story because I think it speaks volumes about inequities and idiocies in American education. First, it exposes one of the many enormous benefits kids get if they just have the good sense to be born to middle-class, literate parents (who can help them fill out a FAFSA). Second, why is it that school districts or colleges themselves cannot provide the service H&R Block was experimenting with (but later decided not to offer)? Third, if it does take H&R Block or other tax preparers to do a FAFSA, then why can't every low income parent of a high school kid hoping to go to college get a voucher to have their local tax preparer help them fill out a FAFSA form?

This is not my field, so perhaps all of these things are being done, BUT I STRONGLY DOUBT IT. Instead, my rather confident guess is that the system is happily cranking along, effectively barring deserving, capable, and promising young people from a brighter future because it's no one's job to solve this little FAFSA problem. We spend billions, by the way, in financial aid and elaborate programs to help able, disadvantaged kids go to college. It's not that we're unwilling to spend money. It's just that we're unwilling to follow the evidence until we find solutions to the core problems of our society.

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