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Applying for Aid May Be a Barrier for Returning Students, Too

Researchers have known for years that applying for financial aid is a hurdle on the path to college. So there’s been a big push to get more high-school seniors to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, knows as the Fafsa, which is used to determine aid eligibility by the federal government as well as many states and colleges.

Students have to refile the Fafsa annually, but much less attention has been paid to how the application process works after the first year. A new paper, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Investigating Rates and Patterns of Financial Aid Renewal Among College Freshmen,” explores the issue using a nationally representative federal data set.

The paper considers students who receive a Pell Grant for their first year of college—who benefit, in other words, from filing their Fafsa the first time—and who earn at least a 3.0 grade-point average, an indication that “they’re well poised to continue in college,” said Ben Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and one of the paper’s authors.

Those students would appear to have every reason to reapply for financial aid, but the researchers found that 18.5 percent of them did not. Close to half of that group did not return for their second year of college.

Those students who did not refile but did return to college had a 26 percent smaller chance of still being enrolled in their junior year than similar students who had refiled and returned.

The study did not pinpoint whether failing to reapply for aid caused students to drop out. It is possible that an unobserved characteristic like motivation is driving both behaviors, said Kelli Bird, a doctoral student in education policy at Virginia and the paper’s other author. Still, the evidence suggests that reapplying for aid is a possible factor in persistence.

The authors found that students at two-year nonprofit colleges were about twice as likely not to refile the Fafsa as their peers at four-year nonprofit colleges were. All college freshmen are busy, Mr. Castleman said, and when people are spread thin, they often put off complex tasks. Community-college students, in particular, may have work and family obligations on top of classwork. They might not be as plugged in with fellow students who might remind them to file. And their colleges probably have fewer resources to help them out.

Returning students do get reminders about their aid forms from the U.S. Education Department and from their colleges, the paper notes. But it’s possible that such reminders “may be delivered through channels that are ineffective at reaching students,” the authors write.

Perhaps a different kind of reminder could improve students’ rates of reapplying for aid—and of persisting in college. Mr. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page, a research assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh, have conduced a pilot experiment to test one out. Their experiment uses text messages—which they previously found can encourage admitted low-income students to enroll in college—to remind freshmen to reapply for aid. The results should be available soon.

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