- The University of Wisconsin-Madison is opening a new lab that brings researchers on student outcomes into its financial aid office to help improve support for students.
- The Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) Lab will use a growing body of applied academic research to guide and support financial aid officials as they assist enrolled and prospective students with understanding how to pay for college.
- Lab projects will "develop evidence-based methods that can help institutions expand access and student success in lasting ways," with an emphasis on assisting marginalized students, according to a university statement.
UW-Madison has already used data from the collaboration to develop the Bucky's Tuition Promise scholarship, which began covering tuition and some fees this fall for about 800 in-state students whose family income was $56,000 or less. SSTAR officials said the lab intends to address issues such as student loan repayment rates.
The lab will focus on underserved students, and a Nerd Wallet report in October suggested that should pay off. It found some 661,000 low-income high school graduates didn't complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), leaving $2.6 billion in financial aid on the table. Each of those students missed out on an average of nearly $4,000 in Pell Grant funding. Half of high school graduates were eligible for federal aid, but more than one-third didn't apply, the report found.
Experts cite a range of reasons students don't capture all the aid available to them. Student thinking they weren't eligible, not having enough information about how to fill out the forms and not wanting to incur debt were some of the reasons reported by a recent federal study.
Changing this thinking will be critical for colleges hoping to shore up enrollments by sharpening their focus on underserved students. Many are already doing so by cutting some red tape around financial aid and promoting a message of affordability to prospective students who might not apply to the college because they think they can't afford it.
Offering more institutional aid has also been a part of that push. A recent College Board report shows institutional grant aid to undergraduates rose by 48% (an inflation-adjusted $12.4 billion) from 2007-08 to 2012-13 and again by 27% from 2012-13 to 2017-18. That year, institutional grants made up 26% of the $184.1 billion in financial aid to undergraduates, compared to 21% in 2007-08, when total financial aid was $124.8 billion.
UW-Madison's move to bring researchers into the financial aid office comes as other institutions are exploring alternative financing models. For instance, Purdue University and the University of Utah offer income-share agreements. Known as ISAs, they allow students to pay tuition retroactively as a percentage of their salary upon graduation.