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

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  • Susan M. Dynarski
  • Judith E. Scott-Clayton

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 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 12227.

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Date of creation: May 2006
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Publication status: published as Dynarski, Susan M. and Judith E. Scott-Clayton. "The Cost Of Complexity In Federal Student Aid: Lessons From Optimal Tax Theory And Behavioral Economics," National Tax Journal, 2006, v59(2,Jun), 319-356.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12227

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References

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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. Philippe Belley & Lance Lochner, 2007. "The Changing Role of Family Income and Ability in Determining Educational Achievement," Working Papers 2011-037, Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group.
  2. Philip Oreopoulos & Ryan Dunn, 2013. "Information and College Access: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 115(1), pages 3-26, 01.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  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. 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.
  8. Chung, Anna S., 2012. "Choice of for-profit college," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 31(6), pages 1084-1101.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Chung, Anna, 2008. "The Choice of For-Profit College," MPRA Paper 18971, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Nov 2009.

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