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The Cost of Complexity in Federal Student Aid: Lessons from Optimal Tax Theory and Behavioral Economics

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  • Dynarski, Susan

    (Harvard U)

  • Scott-Clayton, Judith

Abstract

The federal system for distributing student financial aid rivals the tax code in its complexity. Both have been a source of frustration and a focus of reform efforts for decades, yet the complexity of the student aid system has received comparatively little attention from economists. We describe the complexity of the aid system, and apply lessons from optimal tax theory and behavioral economics to show that complexity is a serious obstacle to both efficiency and equity in the distribution of student aid. We show that complexity disproportionately burdens those with the least ability to pay and undermines redistributive goals. We use detailed data from federal student aid applications to show that a radically simplified aid process can reproduce the current distribution of aid using a fraction of the information now collected.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government in its series Working Paper Series with number rwp06-013.

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Date of creation: Apr 2006
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Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp06-013

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References

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  1. Marianne Bertrand & Erzo F. P. Luttmer & Sendhil Mullainathan, 1999. "Network Effects and Welfare Cultures," Working Papers 9903, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  2. Dynarski, Susan, 2004. "The New Merit Aid," Working Paper Series rwp04-009, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
    • Susan Dynarski, 2004. "The New Merit Aid," NBER Chapters, in: College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay For It, pages 63-100 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Susan Dynarski, 2000. "Hope for Whom? Financial Aid for the Middle Class and Its Impact on College Attendance," NBER Working Papers 7756, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Currie, Janet, 2004. "The Take-Up of Social Benefits," IZA Discussion Papers 1103, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  5. Dynarski, Susan, 2000. "Hope for Whom? Financial Aid for the Middle Class and Its Impact on College Attendance," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 53(n. 3), pages 629-62, September.
  6. Eric Bettinger, 2004. "How Financial Aid Affects Persistence," NBER Chapters, in: College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay For It, pages 207-238 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Joel Slemrod & Nikki Sorum, 1985. "The Compliance Cost of the U.S. Individual Income Tax System," NBER Working Papers 1401, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  9. Marianne Bertrand & Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir, 2004. "A Behavioral-Economics View of Poverty," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(2), pages 419-423, May.
  10. Susan M. Dynarski, 2003. "Does Aid Matter? Measuring the Effect of Student Aid on College Attendance and Completion," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(1), pages 279-288, March.
  11. Susan Dynarski, 2008. "Building the Stock of College-Educated Labor," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 43(3), pages 576-610.
  12. Neil S. Seftor & NSarah E. Turner, 2002. "Back to School: Federal Student Aid Policy and Adult College Enrollment," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 37(2), pages 336-352.
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  19. Jeffrey B. Liebman, 1998. "The Impact of the Earned Income Tax Credit on Incentives and Income Distribution," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 12, pages 83-120 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  20. Moffitt, Robert, 1983. "An Economic Model of Welfare Stigma," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 73(5), pages 1023-35, December.
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  23. Kaplow, Louis, 1996. "How Tax Complexity and Enforcement Affect the Equity and Efficiency of the Income Tax," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 49(1), pages 135-50, March.
  24. Christopher Avery & Thomas J. Kane, 2004. "Student Perceptions of College Opportunities. The Boston COACH Program," NBER Chapters, in: College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay For It, pages 355-394 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. Christopher Avery & Sarah Turner, 2012. "Student Loans: Do College Students Borrow Too Much--Or Not Enough?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 26(1), pages 165-92, Winter.
  2. Christoph Winter, 2009. "Accounting for the changing role of family income in determining college entry," IEW - Working Papers 402, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich, revised Dec 2011.
  3. Philippe Belley & Lance Lochner, 2007. "The Changing Role of Family Income and Ability in Determining Educational Achievement," NBER Working Papers 13527, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Eric P. Bettinger & Bridget Terry Long & Philip Oreopoulos & Lisa Sanbonmatsu, 2009. "The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment," NBER Working Papers 15361, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Philip Oreopoulos & Ryan Dunn, 2012. "Information and College Access: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment," NBER Working Papers 18551, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Susan M. Dynarski & Judith E. Scott-Clayton, 2008. "Complexity and Targeting in Federal Student Aid: A Quantitative Analysis," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 22, pages 109-150 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Lovenheim, Michael F. & Owens, Emily G., 2014. "Does federal financial aid affect college enrollment? Evidence from drug offenders and the Higher Education Act of 1998," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(C), pages 1-13.
  8. David Deming & Susan Dynarski, 2009. "Into College, Out of Poverty? Policies to Increase the Postsecondary Attainment of the Poor," NBER Working Papers 15387, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Hemelt, Steven W. & Marcotte, Dave E., 2008. "Rising Tuition and Enrollment in Public Higher Education," IZA Discussion Papers 3827, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  10. Chung, Anna, 2008. "The Choice of For-Profit College," MPRA Paper 18971, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Nov 2009.
  11. David Deming & Susan Dynarski, 2010. "College Aid," NBER Chapters, in: Targeting Investments in Children: Fighting Poverty When Resources are Limited, pages 283-302 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Chung, Anna S., 2012. "Choice of for-profit college," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 31(6), pages 1084-1101.
  13. Darolia, Rajeev, 2013. "Integrity versus access? The effect of federal financial aid availability on postsecondary enrollment," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 106(C), pages 101-114.

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