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Research finds that financial aid (as it’s currently used) is not the answer to college affordability

September 12, 2016

Why are some students, especially those who are first generation college students or from low-income households, not applying for or consistently receiving financial aid? According to new research out today, the aid system must be redesigned to earn the trust of students and their families and to help them believe that it can make college affordable. This research was published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) journal published in partnership with SAGE Publishing.

Instead of the government determining students’ eligibility for financial aid, which can cause social division between those who receive aid and those who don’t, Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Dr. Tammy Kolbe recommend that all students should be funded collectively under a taxpayer-supported universal public higher education system. Such a system that benefits everyone would, according to the researchers, increase feelings of fairness and would appeal to the values of marginalized people, who are often less trusting of bureaucracies.

“Many Americans are priced out of college today, as the current financial aid system fails to meet their needs,” commented Goldrick-Rab and Kolbe. “We argue that making college affordable will require building a new and trustworthy financing system for higher education—one that its participants can believe in.”

The researchers developed this recommendation after finding that some students and their families had little faith in aid policies because they cause:


  • Students, including first-generation undergraduates who value making decisions with family members, may feel alienated by policies that position them as the sole decision-makers.


  • Some students, such as those in low-income households, may encounter fewer everyday signs of financial and academic success than those in high-income households, causing them to be less optimistic about their ability to afford college and less motivated to prepare for college by taking the right courses.


  • In addition to applying for financial aid, students must also satisfy an array of “satisfactory academic performance” standards. This complex process requires considerable effort from students who may start not only to question if they can pay for college but if it’s ‘worth it’ at all.


  • Students receive individualized aid packages and pay different prices for college, making it difficult for students and their families to assess the real costs of college in order to determine if they can afford it. In addition, students’ aid is determined by their expected family contribution, a complex measurement that can fluctuate each year and may not be received until late in the decision-making process.

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The full article, “A Matter of Trust: Applying Insights from Social Psychology to Make College Affordable,” by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Tammy Kolbe, in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences is free to access for a limited time and can be read here.

This study was published as part of the journal’s third volume, which includes policy insights on improving various aspects of education such as instructional strategies; critical reasoning and thinking; reading, writing, and language; school climate; and equity.

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Sara Miller McCune founded SAGE Publishing in 1965 to support the dissemination of usable knowledge and educate a global community. SAGE is a leading international provider of innovative, high-quality content publishing more than 950 journals and over 800 new books each year, spanning a wide range of subject areas. Our growing selection of library products includes archives, data, case studies and video. SAGE remains majority owned by our founder and after her lifetime will become owned by a charitable trust that secures the company’s continued independence. Principal offices are located in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC and Melbourne.

Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences is a publication of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) that presents original research and scientific reviews relevant to public policy. This will allow scientists to share research that can help build sound policies, allow policymakers to provide feedback to the scientific community regarding research that could address societal challenges, and encourage the scientific community to build models that seriously consider implementation to address the needs of society.



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