Case Western Reserve University today announced new support for a financial aid study designed to examine the effectiveness of a college access program for low-income students. A $1.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help support the research of Eric P. Bettinger, associate professor of economics at the Weatherhead School of Management.
Along with his colleagues, Bridget Terry Long of Harvard University, Phillip Oreopoulos of University of Toronto and Lisa Sanbonmatsu of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Bettinger will study the implementation of an H&R Block program that assists low- and middle-income families to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
According to the American Council on Education, 850,000 students who would have been eligible for federal financial assistance in 2000 did not complete the necessary forms to receive the aid. The researchers cite a lack of information about financial aid as a major impediment to increasing college enrollment among students from low-income families. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education called the process "confusing, complex, inefficient [and] duplicative." The financial aid process also seems to impede student access according to the researchers' initial findings.
Last tax season, research began with a pilot program in the Cleveland area. Through specially designed software and trained employees, H&R Block helped 3,281 eligible low- and middle-income families in 26 Cleveland-area offices take data from their tax form and transfer it onto the financial aid form at no cost. The tax professionals were then able to immediately give an estimate of the family's eligibility for federal and state financial aid.
"There is a high level of interest [in the program]," Bettinger said. "In a 10-mile radius around one of the pilot offices, 800 students had applied for financial aid in prior years. Three times that number expressed interest in going to college. Those are very encouraging numbers."
The company selected the project through a competitive, peer-reviewed process with the goal of identifying interventions that would benefit low- and middle-income families, among other factors.
"We are always interested in innovative collaborations that allow us to serve the needs of our clients by helping them build a better future," said Bernie Wilson, vice president at H&R Block. "This specific project will allow H&R Block to play a pivotal role in emerging research about how best to reach underserved populations with the tools they need to pursue higher education. It's a win-win for everyone involved."
Planned expansion of the financial aid program will target 30,000 families in Ohio and 10,000 in North Carolina. The number of H&R Block offices involved will grow from 26 to approximately 140.
Officials and researchers chose Ohio because it reflects national communities, labor markets and higher education options. North Carolina is a state with increasing diversity, with a proportion of Latinos that is three times higher than in Ohio. The two states also provide for a comparison of different education systems.
"There are many barriers that can stand in the way of high school students who would like to attend college," said Jim Shelton, program director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Providing the support students and their families need to navigate the financial aid process is an important step in increasing college enrollment."
With the help of the Ohio Board of Regents and the National Student Clearinghouse, Bettinger and his colleagues will track the participants to see who applies for financial aid and who ultimately goes to college. The initial tracking period will likely be for three to four years.
"It is clear that higher education plays a pivotal role in improving quality of life, both socially and economically," said Mohan Reddy, dean of the Weatherhead School. "Dr. Bettinger's research is exciting. It can help a large number of people of low and moderate income access the financial aid that will allow them to advance their education. This project has the potential to make an immediate and important impact."