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Form Fitting

by Lory Hough

Bridget Terry LongKids waving letters. It’s not the kind of hard evidence that an Ivy League professor would publish in an academic journal, but in the early stages of her research project, it’s exactly the kind of evidence that makes Associate Professor Bridget Terry Long very happy.

A guidance counselor at a high school in Columbus, Ohio, is reporting that students are coming into her office waving letters from H&R Block that tell them how much they could get in financial aid for college.

“These early conversations, seeing kids think about college, this is what we were hoping for,” Long says.

Her project started this past tax season. For years she has been concerned with the lack of access that low-income students have to higher education. In 2004, for instance, only 43 percent of recent high school graduates from families who made less than $30,000 a year immediately entered a post-secondary institution, compared with 75 percent of students from families earning more than $50,000. Long wanted to see if removing one of the barriers — the cumbersome federal financial aid form — would help balance the numbers.

“There are huge misperceptions about the cost of college and access to financial aid,” Long says. “Is there enough financial aid out there? Absolutely not. But there are assets that people are not using.”

A recent study by the American Council on Education found that a whopping 850,000 students who were eligible for federal financial aid in 2000 didn’t fill out the form.

“It’s complicated and intimidating,” Long says.

It’s also redundant — about two-thirds of the information on the form is the same information that gets plugged into the federal tax form — so Long decided to team up with H&R Block and kill two birds with one stone, or in this case, one tax session. Using specially designed software, trained H&R Block employees helped 1,700 low-income families in Cleveland transfer data from their tax form to the financial aid form, free of charge. They also helped fill out the rest of the form. An additional 1,700 families received only an information pamphlet. Included in the two groups were students about to graduate from high school, older students without degrees, and young students a few years away from college.

“We were initially worried about the process, but that went smoothly,” Long says. “The clients seemed excited about it and were more than happy to participate — 93 percent agreed to be part of the study.”

With the help of the Ohio Board of Regents and the National Student Clearinghouse, Long and researchers at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Toronto will track this first batch of participants to see who ultimately applies for financial aid and who goes on to college. Next year, she wants to extend the project to the entire state of Ohio, and, if she can secure funding, to a second state. She hopes the project will eventually affect public policy.

For now, though, Long is happy with the anecdotal results.

“You put all of this time into a project but you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “This [project] is really working out.”

For more information about this research, please visit Long's website.

About the Article

A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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photo by Tanit Sakakini

 

Ed. Fall 2007

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