Delivering Early Information about College Financial Aid: Exploring the Options for Middle School Students

The Urban Institute recently released a study identifying new avenues to bring awareness of college financial aid options to low-income families. By using the application processes for existing social services, Pell Grant eligibility could be determined and critical information on how to finance a college education could reach more low-income families. The report explores how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid and federal tax returns might be utilized to disseminate college financial aid (and determine Pell grant eligibility).

Among the findings:

  • SNAP has the potential to reach over 10 million households with children (the number of families currently receiving benefits). If information on financial aid was disseminated at the time of application (before eligibility had been established), even more families could learn about their Pell Grant eligibility as many families who do not qualify for SNAP may still qualify for a Pell Grant.
    • Because all SNAP participants are required to have an in-person interview during the process, the program offers an ideal opportunity to distribute information on college and financial aid options and personalize that information to the families’ own economic situation.
    • Automated information might also be a useful tool here if resources could be linked directly to the online SNAP application.
    • This avenue is not without its challenges as states would have to increase training for SNAP caseworkers and navigate the implications of a longer interview process for reach participant.
  • The federal Medicaid program offers similar access to low income families. If an outreach program were implemented through Medicaid, it would have the potential to reach half of all low-income children in the country. As with SNAP, this audience could increase if information could be distributed at the time of application before eligibility was determined.
    • States would need to consider how to increase resources and training for those implementing on the ground.
  • Finally, information from a family’s federal tax return could be used to inform a large number of low income families on college financing options. Over half of filers have an income below $30,000 and millions of families claim the EITC (earned income tax credit).
    • Outreach on financial aid might be best targeted to families who receive the EITC, as in most cases the income limit is the same as it is for Pell Grant eligibility.
    • The primary challenge here is the lack of direct in-person contact. However, 60% of filers use a tax preparation service for their returns. These companies could serve as excellent partners in the dissemination of early information on college costs.

Likely, a combination of all three of these options has the best chance at reaching low-income families in time for them to consider taking advantage of federal financial aid for college.