Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Complexity and Financial Aid: A Barrier to College Completion

Behavioral factors often play a bigger role in decision-making than financial or economic factors. For example, all of us tend to discount current losses compared to future gains. This factor, known as “hyperbolic discounting,” is true for all of us. We are unlikely to risk 50 cents today for $1.00 next year despite the return on investment.  Consequently, more than 80% of all Americans have a negative personal savings rate.  This tendency becomes magnified for low income families where earnings are barely able to keep up with daily life expenses.
All of us are loss averse. Potential losses loom larger than gains. We overvalue what we already have and discount what we may get in the future.  Research on loss aversion indicates that we require gains equal to double of that of the current loss. That factor is magnified again when the loss is potentially ruinous or your lifestyle is threatened.[1]   Let’s say your income is $45,000 a year, are you willing to lose $35,000 right now in exchange for $15,000 in additional income over the next ten years?  That is the risk many low-income students face.

We also tend to base our decisions on our experiences rather than theoretical projections offered by other people.  Lower-income families have little experience with college and thus the gains seem far more uncertain.  The combination of risk aversion and complexity not only leads to an aversion to borrowing but an aversion to seeking and receiving financial aid.

When confronted with a high risk decisions like investing in college, small barriers can become huge barriers. This starts with the process of seeking financial aid. According to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, “Millions of students and adult learners who aspire to college are overwhelmed by the complexity of student aid. Uncertainty and confusion rob them of its significant benefits. Rather than promote access, studies show that aid often creates a series of barriers - a gauntlet that the poorest students must run to get to college.” [2] 

[1] Hahnemann, (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
[2] Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. (2005). “The Student Aid Gauntlet: Making Access to College Simple and Certain.” Final Report of the Special Study of Simplification Of Need Analysis and Application for Title IV Aid. Washington, D.C.: Department of

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