Clear language helps students navigate financial aid, study finds

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Financial aid letters with simplified language and modified content may encourage high school students to take a key step in the financial aid process, according to a study released this month by the California Policy Lab and the People’s Lab. UC Berkeley.

In the study, researchers worked with the California Student Aid Commission, or CSAC, to develop eligibility notification letters for Cal Grant, a state financial aid program. The researchers sent different letters to more than 250,000 high school students and studied the effect of the letters on the number of students who opened an account on the CSAC website, a crucial step in obtaining the grant. .

“Simple changes in verbiage and messaging made a significant difference in the number of students who created Web Grants accounts, a key performance measure of CSAC,” said Patrick Perry, director of policy, research and data to CSAC, in an email.

The study found that students who received letters in plain language were 9% more likely to sign up for accounts than students who received an original version of the letter. Letters that also included a belonging message, which told each student that they were “the kind of person who belongs to college,” had an 11% advantage over the original version.

The CSAC also sent letters detailing the net costs of the various college options, in addition to using the simplified language and message of belonging of the other letters. Students who received such letters were 4.6% more likely to create accounts than those who received letters in the simplified language only.

“The net cost letter also influenced students’ knowledge of college costs and their university choices: students who received it were 12% more likely to enroll in community college,” said Sean Coffey , director of communications and outreach at California Policy Lab, in an email.

Some of the effects of the letters, however, were limited. Neither the membership message nor a message urging students to “(j) join thousands of high school students who have claimed their Cal Grant” offered statistically significant increases in account registrations over the letter with language. simplified alone.

According to the study, Cal Grant’s payments were not affected by any of the letters, suggesting that the increase in account registration did not necessarily lead to an increase in receipt of financial aid. , according to the study. Nonetheless, a guidance note accompanying the study suggested that streamlining financial aid applications, assistance, and cost transparency could be effective in increasing aid disbursements.

“(We) recognize that encouraging enrollment is only one part of a much larger effort to simplify, streamline and improve access to college financial aid,” said Elizabeth Linos, professor UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy assistant and study co-author, in an email.

In response to the study, CSAC has permanently implemented simplified language and a message of belonging in its letters, but has not implemented the net cost figures, according to Tae Kang, deputy director of CSAC. .

According to John Douglass, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy on campus, the solutions offered by the study are a good way to clarify the cost of college education to low- and middle-income families, who often overestimate the cost of education. superior.

Riya Master, vice president of external affairs of ASUC, also welcomed the changes proposed by the authors of the study. Making financial aid instructions clearer, Master said, is a particularly important step in helping students navigate the process of potentially earning thousands of dollars for higher education.

“When you miss that kind of advice… we see students who would be eligible for financial aid, not knowing they are eligible, not knowing where the applications are, and then being systematically oppressed again,” said Master.

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @GabeClasson.



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