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New study: low-income students need more attention

Students from low-income families who get help with student-aid forms are more likely to attend university, says a Canada-U.S. study

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | NOV 09 2009

The key to encouraging more low-income students to go to university may be as simple as helping them complete student financial aid forms, according to a new Canada-U.S. study.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, Harvard University, Stanford University and the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, in partnership with accounting firm H&R Block. It involved some 26,000 low-income families and individuals in Ohio and North Carolina.

Although the study was conducted in the U.S., its findings could have important policy implications for Canada since it’s likely that that low-income Canadian students face similar impediments in navigating this country’s financial aid process, said Philip Oreopoulos, economics professor at U of T and one of the project’s researchers.

As part of the study, H&R Block tax professionals helped a group of randomly selected families and individuals earning less than US$45,000 a year to complete student financial aid forms during the 2008 tax season. The families were also given an estimate of how much government aid they were eligible to receive and information about tuition costs at local postsecondary institutions. A second group received information about aid eligibility and tuition costs but no assistance completing the forms. A third group, the control group, received only pamphlets explaining the benefits of higher education and the financial aid process.

The findings showed that individuals who received assistance with the forms were substantially more likely to submit the application and enrol in university or college. Grade 12 students whose families received assistance completing the forms were 7.7 percentage points, or 29 percent, more likely to enrol in college or university than students in the control group who received only pamphlets. The assisted individuals were also more likely to receive financial aid. The assistance program also helped boost the enrolment rate of young adults who had completed high school but had no previous postsecondary experience.

Sudents need direct help

People who received information about aid eligibility and tuition fees without direct assistance (the second group) experienced no significant impact on their enrolment rates. The results suggest that a combination of providing direct help with aid applications and better information about the financial aid process could be an effective way to improve participation rates of low-income youth.

The study was published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research and has been submitted for publication in an academic journal. The results are “mindboggling,” said Dr. Oreopoulos of U of T. The fact that they can be achieved by such a simple, low-cost solution makes it “all the more exciting,” he said.

If he’s able to find financial support, Dr. Oreopoulos said he’d like to conduct a follow-up study in Canada in which Grade 12 students would receive help in class to apply to at least one postsecondary institution and to complete financial aid forms before they make a decision about whether to go on to postsecondary education.

Numerous studies in Canada and the U.S. have shown that students from low-income families are less likely to attend postsecondary institutions than those from higher-income households. A recent study by researchers at McMaster University and funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that students from low-income neighbourhoods were 13-percent less likely to apply to university than students from high-income areas. The study also found that the gap has remained fixed over the last decade and may even have increased somewhat.

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