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The Paperwork Burden

Helping high schoolers fill out financial aid forms could boost post-secondary enrolment

Does a surfeit of paperwork prevent disadvantaged high schoolers from going on to higher education?

That’s the premise of a working paper published in September by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research, which sought to explore whether voluntary programs designed to assist teens from low or modest income homes in filling out student-aid forms would boost college or university applications. The study focused on families in Ohio and North Carolina with incomes under $45,000, and with at least one family member between 15 and 30 who didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.

The results showed that those who had received help from H&R Block tax preparation specialists were 25 to 30 per cent more likely to enroll in college than those who did not. “That’s huge, just by helping someone fill out the form,” says University of Toronto economist Philip Oreopoulos, one of the investigators.

Prof. Oreopoulos acknowledges one of the obvious questions implied by the project: if a teen can’t fill out forms, will they succeed in a college setting? To address the point, the team didn’t provide assistance with the college application form itself, and will continue tracking those students who got help with the financial-aid forms. “It’s a bit unfair to say that the skills required to fill out forms are the same as those that determine success in college. We all have trouble with forms.”

Canadian aid applications tend to be simpler, notes Prof. Oreopoulos, but he argues there’s still a case to be made for providing better assistance through high schools in this country so potential applicants aren’t discouraged by perceived financial hurdles.

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