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Simplifying Tax Incentives and Aid for College: Progress and Prospects

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  • Susan Dynarski
  • Judith Scott-Clayton
  • Mark Wiederspan

Abstract

The application for federal student aid is longer than the tax returns filled out by the majority of US households. Research suggests that complexity in the aid process undermines its effectiveness in inducing more students into college. In 2008, an article in this journal showed that most of the data items in the aid application did not affect the distribution of aid, and that the much shorter set of variables available in IRS data could be used to closely replicate the existing distribution of aid. This added momentum to a period of discussion and activity around simplification in Congress and the US Department of Education. In this article, we provide a five-year retrospective of what's changed in the aid application process, what hasn't, and the possibilities for future reform. While there has been some streamlining in the process of applying for aid, it has fallen far short of its goals. Two dozen questions were removed from the aid application and a dozen added, reducing the number of questions from 127 to 116. Funding for college has also been complicated by the growth of a parallel system for aid: the tax system. A massive expansion in federal tax incentives for college, in particular the American Opportunity Tax Credit, has led to millions of households completing paperwork for both the IRS and the US Department of Education in order to qualify for college funding.

Suggested Citation

  • Susan Dynarski & Judith Scott-Clayton & Mark Wiederspan, 2013. "Simplifying Tax Incentives and Aid for College: Progress and Prospects," NBER Working Papers 18707, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18707 Note: ED
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. 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(3), pages 629-662, September.
    2. 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.
    3. Turner, Sarah & Bound, John, 2003. "Closing the Gap or Widening the Divide: The Effects of the G.I. Bill and World War II on the Educational Outcomes of Black Americans," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 63(01), pages 145-177, March.
    4. Dynarski, Susan & Wiederspan, Mark, 2012. "Student Aid Simplification: Looking Back and Looking Ahead," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 65(1), pages 211-234, March.
    5. Blumenthal, Marsha & Slemrod, Joel, 1992. "The Compliance Cost of the U.S. Individual Income Tax System: A Second Look After Tax Reform," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 45(2), pages 185-202, June.
    6. Dynarski, Susan M. & Scott–Clayton, Judith E., 2006. "The Cost of Complexity in Federal Student Aid: Lessons From Optimal Tax Theory and Behavioral Economics," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 59(2), pages 319-356, June.
    7. repec:mpr:mprres:3250 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Bridget Terry Long, 2003. "The Impact of Federal Tax Credits for Higher Education Expenses," NBER Working Papers 9553, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Christopher Cornwell & David B. Mustard & Deepa J. Sridhar, 2006. "The Enrollment Effects of Merit-Based Financial Aid: Evidence from Georgia's HOPE Program," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(4), pages 761-786, October.
    10. Katharine G. Abraham & Melissa A. Clark, 2006. "Financial Aid and Students’ College Decisions: Evidence from the District of Columbia Tuition Assistance Grant Program," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 41(3).
    11. John Bound & Sarah Turner, 2002. "Going to War and Going to College: Did World War II and the G.I. Bill Increase Educational Attainment for Returning Veterans?," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 20(4), pages 784-815, October.
    12. 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.
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    Cited by:

    1. Carruthers, Celeste K. & Fox, William F., 2016. "Aid for all: College coaching, financial aid, and post-secondary persistence in Tennessee," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 97-112.
    2. Hastings, Justine S. & Neilson, Christopher A. & Ramirez, Anely & Zimmerman, Seth D., 2016. "(Un)informed college and major choice: Evidence from linked survey and administrative data," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 136-151.
    3. Casey B. Mulligan, 2013. "Recent Marginal Labor Income Tax Rate Changes by Skill and Marital Status," Tax Policy and the Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 27(1), pages 69-100.
    4. Page, Lindsay C. & Scott-Clayton, Judith, 2016. "Improving college access in the United States: Barriers and policy responses," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 4-22.
    5. Christine Neill, 2013. "What You Don't Know Can't Help You: Lessons of Behavioural Economics for Tax-Based Student Aid," C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, C.D. Howe Institute, issue 393, November.
    6. Bruce, Donald J. & Carruthers, Celeste K., 2014. "Jackpot? The impact of lottery scholarships on enrollment in Tennessee," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(C), pages 30-44.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • I22 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Educational Finance; Financial Aid

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