Many need-based student aid programs are designed to solve only one problem–inadequate funds to pay for education. There is no doubt that transferring funds to low- and moderate-income students is a critical component of making postsecondary education an option for them. But necessary is not the same as sufficient. And we may have focused so much on attempting to increase the number of dollars we provide to students that we have lost track of some of the other things they need to succeed.
It is not news that financial barriers don’t explain all of the differences in educational attainment across socioeconomic groups. There is extensive evidence that inadequate academic preparation, combined with low expectations and a discouraging history of past schooling experiences, often plays a large role. Nonetheless, we remain highly focused on dollars. One reason is because we know how to cure a lack of money. Give someone more and deliver it more simply. We don’t know how to cure the deeper social and educational problems–not for young children starting out and certainly not for older individuals who have already suffered from limited opportunities.
But another reason we focus so much on dollars is because we hesitate to be overly intrusive in people’s lives. Isn’t it paternalistic to force choices different from those people would make on their own? Isn’t it discriminatory to demand that low-income students follow pre-set paths not required of more privileged students whose parents pay for luxury along with education? But the number of students following unsuccessful educational paths is too high. Many make the mistake of not going to college at all because they don’t think they can afford it or find the idea of immediate earnings more enticing. But others enter inappropriate postsecondary programs in which they have little chance of succeeding. Many of these students borrow too much money and/or take loans with harsh terms they don’t understand.
Psychologists and behavioral economists have shown that people often fare better when their choices are limited, in contexts as different as shopping for groceries and selecting a retirement plan. The hands-off, you-are-an-independent-adult approach to college may not work so well even for students with college-experienced parents at home waiting to advise, but it surely is not working well enough for many first-generation and disadvantaged students. We can’t hope to give a student from a $25,000-a-year family enough money to put her on an equal footing with students from $150,000-a-year families who enter college with such strong educational backgrounds and such strong support (financial and other) from home that she is unlikely to catch up even if she manages to get through college. But we can do a better job of providing direction, academic and social support, and strong incentives for timely completion of quality credentials. We don’t know the perfect way to do this, but we know some promising strategies. These strategies cost money. The money to support these efforts may be more important to student success than a few extra dollars of no-strings-attached financial aid.
This is not an argument for less funding for financial aid. It is an argument for better-designed programs that provide at-risk students with more than just a little extra cash.