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The Role of Context in Understanding the Contributions of Financial Aid to College Opportunity


by Laura W. Perna & Patricia E. Steele - 2011

Background/Context: Financial aid is a critical policy lever for increasing college access, choice, and attainment. Even with the substantial investment in financial aid programs, however, inadequate financial resources continue to limit postsecondary educational attainment. The persistence of financial barriers despite the substantial annual investment in student financial aid programs suggests the need to better understand the role of financial aid in promoting college opportunity.

Purpose: The study explores three questions: What are high school students’ perceptions of and expectations for financial aid? How do these perceptions and expectations inform college-related behaviors? How are perceptions and expectations for financial aid influenced by the state and school contexts in which students are embedded?

Research Design: The study uses data from descriptive case studies of 15 high schools, three in each of five states: California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Within each state, we purposively selected three high schools. The three high schools, selected from one school district or metropolitan region, may be characterized as relatively “low,” “middle,” or “high” resource based on the demographic and academic characteristics of enrolled students.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The results of this study suggest the importance of considering perceptions and expectations about aid, rather than actual amounts of available aid, when examining the relationship between financial aid and students’ college-related decisions. The results also suggest that knowledge and understanding of aid are related to characteristics of the schools that students attend and characteristics of available aid (an aspect of the state context). In addition, the results indicate that perceptions of and expectations about aid may encourage students to engage in other behaviors that promote college access and success, particularly academic preparation. The article concludes by offering implications for future research.

Financial aid is a critical lever for increasing college access, choice, and attainment. Each year, federal and state governments, as well as colleges and universities, foundations, and other organizations, invest substantial resources in programs designed to eliminate financial barriers to postsecondary attainment. In 2007–2008 alone, students nationwide received more than $96 billion in federally supported financial aid, and more than $162.5 billion in aid from all sources, to offset postsecondary educational expenses (College Board, 2008).


Even with this investment, however, financial barriers continue to limit college opportunity. Since the mid-1980s, college enrollment rates have been between 25 and 30 percentage points lower for high school graduates in the lowest family income quintile than for those in the highest (Baum & Ma, 2007). The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (2006) estimated that between 2000 and 2010, 1.4 million to 2.4 million students from low- and middle-income families will be academically qualified for college but will not complete a bachelor’s degree because of inadequate financial resources.


The persisting role of finances despite the substantial annual investment in student financial aid programs suggests the need to better understand the role of financial aid in promoting college opportunity. Based on their comprehensive review of research for the College Board’s “rethinking student aid” project, Baum and McPherson (2008) concluded that more research is needed, because much existing research on the effects of financial aid on students’ college opportunities is “inconclusive” (p. 7). Among the limitations of prior research are the practice of considering only actual amounts of financial aid rather than students’ knowledge or perceptions of aid, the limited consideration of how financial aid may indirectly promote college enrollment, and the lack of attention to why perceptions and use of financial aid vary across groups. This study addresses these limitations by using data from descriptive case studies of 15 high schools in five states to explore students’ perceptions of student financial aid and the forces that influence these perceptions.  


CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


Along with academic preparation and achievement, financial resources is one of the most important predictors of college enrollment (Perna, 2006). Prior research consistently shows a positive relationship between family income, one measure of financial resources, and such college-related outcomes as number of applications submitted, enrollment, and choice (Ellwood & Kane, 2000; Hurtado, Inkelas, Briggs, & Rhee, 1997; Kane, 1999). An offer of financial aid has been shown to be positively related to the likelihood of enrolling in college among high school graduates, college applicants, and high-aptitude high school students (Avery & Hoxby, 2004; Catsiapis, 1987; St. John, 1991).


Research suggests that the effects of aid on college enrollment vary by the type of aid offered, with grants having a positive effect, loans having minimal effect, and work-study having an unknown effect (Heller, 2008; Mundel, 2008). Need-based grant aid has been shown to be positively related to the likelihood of enrolling in any type of postsecondary education within 2 years of graduating from high school (Kane, 1999) and to the likelihood of attending an in-state private four-year or in-state public four-year college or university (Perna & Titus, 2004). Using fixed-effect regression analyses of state-level data from 1992 through 2000, St. John and colleagues (2004) found that, after controlling for state demographic and other characteristics, both need-based and non-need-based grants were positive predictors of college enrollment among high school graduates. The analyses showed that a $1,000 increase in need-based grants was associated with an 11.5 percentage point increase in college enrollment rates, and a $1,000 increase in non-need-based grant aid was associated with an 8.9 percentage point increase.


Research examining the effects of financial aid on college enrollment typically uses quantitative analyses and a human capital conceptual framework (e.g., Kane, 1999; Manski & Wise, 1983). Human capital theory assumes that each student decides to enroll in college by comparing the expected lifetime benefits and costs for all alternatives and then selecting the alternative (e.g., college, work) that maximizes his or her utility (Becker, 1993; Paulsen, 2001). According to this perspective, student financial aid increases the supply of resources available to pay college prices, thereby increasing the likelihood that a student will conclude that the benefits of attending college outweigh the costs.


Nonetheless, as others have noted (e.g., Long, 2009; Paulsen, 2001; Perna, 2006), human capital theory alone is insufficient for understanding how financial aid influences students’ college enrollment decisions. For example, human capital models do not explain several inconsistencies in students’ responses to financial aid (Long). A rational human capital investment model assumes that even when the expected benefits and costs are the same, two individuals may make different college choices because of differences in their preferences, tolerance for risk, and uncertainty (DesJardins & Toutkoushian, 2005). But, human capital models do not explain why students “react differently to various forms of financial aid and tuition changes, even if the economic value of each is the same” (Heller, 1997, p. 632). Human capital theory also does not explain why college enrollment is influenced by nonpecuniary aspects of financial aid, including whether the aid is labeled “grant” or “scholarship” and whether the grant aid is frontloaded (Avery & Hoxby, 2004).


A second limitation is that research based on human capital models typically includes projections of actual amounts of student financial aid, assuming that students’ knowledge, perceptions, and expectations of aid coincide with actual amounts (Long, 2009). Human capital models do not assume that individuals have perfect and complete information, but evaluate college options based on available information about the benefits and costs (DesJardins & Toutkoushian, 2005). Many reports document the absence of accurate knowledge of financial aid among high school students and their families (e.g., Grodsky & Jones, 2004; Horn, Chen, & Chapman, 2003). Levels of awareness and understanding of college prices and financial aid are particularly low among Latino students and parents (Immerwahr, 2003; Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, 2004) and among parents who have no direct personal experience with college (Hossler, Schmit, & Bouse, 1991).


A third limitation is that human capital models provide limited insights into students’ perceptions of or expectations for financial aid or how they form preferences or expectations for different types of student aid (DesJardins & Toutkoushian, 2005; Manski, 2009). Some research suggests that preferences for loans vary across groups and that these preferences are related to college-related behaviors (Christie & Munro, 2003; Christou & Haliassos, 2006; ECMC Group Foundation, 2003; Linsenmeier, Rosen, & Rouse, 2006). But, little is known about the forces that contribute to these different preferences, the consequences of these preferences for students’ college enrollment, or students’ preferences for or expectations of types of aid other than loans.


A final limitation is that human capital models focus on the direct relationship between financial aid and college enrollment without considering how financial aid—particularly perceptions and expectations of aid—may indirectly promote college enrollment. As others (e.g., Fitzgerald, 2006; Paulsen & St. John, 2002) have argued, financial aid may promote college access directly by reducing or eliminating financial barriers at the time of college entry, and indirectly by encouraging students to engage in other college-related behaviors, because of the expectation that financial aid will be available. Nonetheless, although existing research has established a relationship between knowledge of financial aid and various college-related behaviors, it has not established whether knowledge of aid causes students to engage in activities that promote college enrollment, or students who are inclined to attend college acquire knowledge of aid (Perna & Titus, 2004). Moreover, despite the belief that “information” about financial aid promotes college enrollment, little is known about the most effective content, timing, and/or modes of delivering messages about financial aid (Mundel & Coles, 2004).


One potentially useful perspective for understanding students’ perceptions of aid and the forces that influence these perceptions is the notion of habitus. Drawing on a sociological perspective, McDonough (1997) used Bourdieu’s notion of habitus to conceptualize the ways that bounded rationality, or the inability to consider all possible alternatives, influences college-related decision-making. This perspective assumes that college-related decisions are determined by an individual’s habitus, or the internalized system of thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions that is acquired from the immediate environment. Rather than consider all possible alternatives, habitus defines and limits the alternatives that are considered, the value that is placed on different alternatives, and the choices that are made (McDonough, 1997; Paulsen & St. John, 2002). This perspective assumes that alternatives are defined and delimited by the social, organizational (e.g., high school), and cultural contexts in which individuals are embedded (McDonough, 1997).


Among other conclusions, McDonough’s (1997) perspective suggests that students’ college enrollment decisions reflect the norms and values that are embedded within their “situated context.” McDonough’s work is especially important for understanding how the availability of resources and structures, as well as the underlying norms and expectations within a high school, defines and delimits college-going opportunities for students.


A review of relevant research suggests that in addition to the high school, other aspects of context may also influence students’ college-related understandings, perceptions, and behaviors (Paulsen & St. John, 2002; Perna, 2006). Potentially relevant dimensions of context include characteristics of a student’s family, peers, and high school, as well as the broader economic, social, and policy context (Perna, 2006).


Therefore, the conceptual model for this study assumes that students’ perceptions of financial aid are influenced by the contexts in which students are embedded (Perna, Rowan-Kenyon, Bell, Li, & Thomas, 2008). Drawing on Perna’s (2006) review and synthesis of prior research and as illustrated in Figure 1, the conceptual model assumes that, consistent with human capital theory, students make decisions about college enrollment based on an assessment of the benefits and costs of enrollment relative to their preferences, tastes, and uncertainty. Reflecting sociological theoretical perspectives, the model assumes that students’ college-going decisions, including the preferences, tastes, and expectations that inform these decisions, are influenced by multiple dimensions of context, particularly the characteristics of K–12 schools attended, local higher education options, and broader societal, economic, and policy context.


Figure 1.  Conceptual Model of Student College Enrollment with Policy Linkages

Source: Perna et al. (2008).


[39_15934.htm_g/00002.jpg]


The conceptual model also specifies connections between particular policies and students’ college enrollment behaviors (St. John, 2003). Most relevant to this study, St. John’s framework posits that public policy interventions, including student financial aid, shape postsecondary transitions and access.


Although some research has considered the ways that the high school context influences students’ perceptions, knowledge, and use of financial aid (e.g., McDonough, 1997), relatively little is known about how other dimensions of context, particularly aspects of the state context, constrain and delimit students’ college-related decisions. Findings from research examining the effects of state merit aid programs on enrollment suggest that state context, particularly the characteristics of available state-sponsored financial aid, may play a role. Quantitative studies show that college enrollment increased in response to the state merit aid program in Georgia (Cornwell, Mustard, & Sridhar, 2004; Dynarski, 2000, 2002, 2004), but not in New Mexico (Binder, Ganderton, & Hutchens, 2002). In a comparison of seven state merit aid programs, Dynarski (2004) found the largest enrollment effects in Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and the smallest in South Carolina (where the relationship was not statistically significant). The effects of merit aid programs on racial/ethnic gaps in enrollment also varied across states (Dynarski, 2004). Merit aid programs in three states had larger effects on enrollment for Blacks and Hispanics than for Whites, thereby reducing racial/ethnic gaps in enrollment. In contrast, Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship program had larger effects for Whites than for Blacks and Hispanics, suggesting that the program contributes to the racial/ethnic stratification of enrollment in the state (Dynarski, 2004).


In sum, although demonstrating that student financial aid, especially aid in the form of grants, is positively related to the likelihood of enrolling in college (Heller, 1997; Kane, 1999), prior research provides limited insights into how students perceive financial aid, how their perceptions and expectations inform their college-related behaviors, and how contextual forces influence these perceptions and expectations. This study addresses these knowledge gaps.  


RESEARCH METHOD


This study uses data from descriptive case studies of 15 high schools, three in each of five states, to explore the following three questions: What are high school students’ perceptions of and expectations for financial aid? How do these perceptions and expectations inform college-related behaviors? How are perceptions and expectations for financial aid informed by the state and school contexts in which students are embedded?


Data for this study are drawn from a larger project designed to understand the ways that federal, state, and school district policies influence college opportunity for students attending different high schools. The guiding conceptual framework and research design view the state as one unit of analysis, and the high school as an embedded unit of analysis (Yin, 2003a). The five states in the study are California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The research team purposively selected these states based on their variation on a number of demographic, economic, political, and educational characteristics.


Most relevant to this study, the five states have varying approaches to student financial aid. Although they provide a smaller amount of aid than the federal government, state governments are an important source of student financial aid, especially aid in the form of grants. Between 1997–1998 and 2007–2008, the amount of funds awarded to undergraduates from state grant programs increased by 80% after controlling for inflation, a faster rate of growth than Federal Pell Grants (75% increase) and grants from colleges and universities (78% increase; College Board, 2008). In 2007–2008, state grants totaled $7.8 billion, 7% of all aid received by undergraduates (College Board).


State grants may be particularly important for providing financial access to college for low-income students, given the decline in the purchasing power of the Pell Grant, the primary federally funded need-based grant program. In 2007–2008, the maximum Pell Grant covered only 32% of average total tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities nationwide, down from 50% in 1987–1988 (College Board, 2008). In 2003–2004, about 27% of dependent undergraduates with family incomes below $40,000 received state aid, compared with only 7% of dependent undergraduates with family incomes above $100,000 (Berkner & Wei, 2006).  


Nonetheless, promoting access to and attainment of postsecondary education for qualified students is just one goal of state grant programs. Other goals include promoting students’ choice among public and private institutions, reducing “brain drain” by encouraging students to attend in-state rather than out-of-state institutions, and promoting and recognizing academic achievement in high school or college (Doyle, 2008; Heller, 2004). Need-based aid programs are used to promote access, equalization funds are used to promote choice among institutions, and merit-based aid programs are used to reward academic achievement (Doyle). Over the past 20 years, the share of state grants awarded based on criteria other than financial need has increased substantially. Between 1996–1997 and 2006–2007, the amount of non-need-based state grant aid awarded to undergraduates increased in constant dollars by 250%, whereas the amount of need-based state grant aid to undergraduates increased by only 59% (College Board, 2008). Looked at another way, the share of state-funded financial aid awarded based on non-need criteria increased from 9% in 1986–1987, to 15% in 1996–1997, to 28% in 2006–2007 (College Board).


Two of the five states in this study may be characterized as “merit-based” aid states (Florida and Georgia), two may be characterized as “need-based” (California and Pennsylvania), and one may be considered a “hybrid” (Maryland). Although a number of small merit-based scholarship programs have long operated throughout the United States, Georgia was the first state to offer a large-scale merit-based aid program. In 1993, Georgia established the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship program, with funds for the program coming from the Georgia Lottery for Education. The HOPE Scholarship covers the full price of tuition and fees at any in-state public institution and a comparable amount at in-state private institutions for any student with at least a B average. Table 1 shows that as a percentage of higher education operating expenses, state expenditures for student grant aid in Georgia are third highest in the nation (22%; National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs [NASSGAP], 2008). The ratio of total state grant dollars to total undergraduate enrollment ($1,563) is second highest in the nation and represents 90% of average tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates attending the state’s public two-year colleges and universities. Georgia awards virtually no state aid to undergraduates based on financial need; the state ranks 51st (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) in terms of undergraduate state need-based grant dollars per undergraduate enrollment (at $4; NASSGAP).


Table 1. Characteristics of State Financial Aid for the Five Study States

Characteristics

California

Florida

Georgia

Maryland

Pennsylvania

State grant aid for undergraduates (2006–07)b

     

   UG state grant $ per UG enrollment

$509

$811

$1,563

$488

$893

       state rank

21

11

2

24

8

   UG state need-based grant $ per UG

$509

$225

$4

$465

$893

       state rank

10

29

51

12

3

Primary state need-based aid program

Cal Grant A, B, C

FL Student Assistance Grant

LEAP Grant

Educational Assistance Grant

PA State Grant

  Maximum need-based aid award (2006–07)b

$11,259

$1,722

-

$3,000

$4,500

  Minimum need-based aid award (2006–07)b

$576

$200

-

$400

$200

Primary state merit-based aid program

 

Bright Futures Scholarship program

Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) Scholarship

Distinguished Scholar Award

 
      

Average tuition & fees for full-time undergraduates (2006–07)a

     

   Public 2-year institutions

$674

$1,968

$1,730

$2,950

$3,093

   Public 4-year institutions

$4,445

$3,009

$3,773

$7,068

$9,124

Average state grant $ per UG enrollment /average tuition & feesc

    

   Public 2-year institutions

76%

41%

90%

17%

29%

   Public 4-year institutions

11%

27%

41%

7%

10%

State grant expenditures as % of higher ed operating expensesb

7.3%

13.8%

22.1%

6.8%

21.8%

       state rank

24

12

3

29

4

Sources: a National Center for Education Statistics (2008); b National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs (2008); cCalculated from data from NCES and NASSGAP (2008).


The publicity and perceived popularity of HOPE prompted the development of other merit-based aid programs throughout the United States (Heller, 2002), including Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program. Another lottery-funded merit-based program, Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship is available to students who earn at least a 3.0 grade point average (weighted to reflect the rigor of coursework), complete a specified core curriculum in high school, and receive at least a 20 composite score on the ACT or 970 composite score on the SAT. The program covers between 75% and 100% of tuition and fees at public in-state institutions, depending on the type of scholarship award. Florida is also relatively generous in terms of state aid; total state grant expenditures as a percentage of higher education operating expenses rank 12th in the nation (at 13.8%), and undergraduate state grant dollars per total undergraduate enrollment ($811) are 11th highest in the nation (NASSGAP, 2008).  Although somewhat more substantial than the state need-based grant program in Georgia, Florida’s need-based grant program, the Florida Student Assistance Grant, is a relatively minor source of aid for the state’s undergraduates; the ratio of state need-based grant dollars per undergraduates is just $225, 29th highest in the nation (NASSGAP).


By comparison, the state aid programs in California and Pennsylvania are distinctively need based. The ratio of state need-based grant dollars for undergraduates to the state’s undergraduate enrollment is 10th highest in California (at $509) and third highest in Pennsylvania (at $893; NASSGAP, 2008). Both Cal Grants and Pennsylvania State Grants are awarded based on students’ demonstrated financial need, although low- and middle-income students in California with a 3.0 minimum grade point average may also qualify for a Cal Grant Competitive award. Table 1 suggests that state grant aid for undergraduates in California is especially plentiful when considered relative to average tuition and fees for undergraduates at the state’s public two-year colleges; the ratio of state grant dollars for undergraduates per undergraduate enrollment represents 73% of average tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates attending public two-year colleges in California. In Pennsylvania, state grant expenditures represent 22% of the state’s higher education operating expenses, the fourth highest rate in the nation (NASSGAP).


In contrast to the clear categorization of the other four states, Maryland offers a mixed or hybrid approach to student aid. On the “Student Financial Assistance” page of the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC, 2008) Web site, the state identifies five categories of state financial aid programs: need-based grants, legislative scholarships, merit-based scholarships, career-based scholarships, and programs serving “unique populations,” including veterans and individuals in foster care. The state offers two need-based grants, the Guaranteed Access Grant and the Educational Assistance Grant. The former covers 100% of financial need for students who earn at least a 2.5 grade point average in high school, have a family income that is below about 125% of the poverty line, and demonstrate financial need. The state’s larger need-based aid program, the Educational Assistance Grant, provides grants covering 40% of students’ demonstrated financial need. The state also offers two legislative scholarships, the Delegate scholarship and the Senatorial scholarship, both of which are awarded at the discretion of individual state legislators. The two merit-based scholarships are the Distinguished Scholar award and the Distinguished Scholar Community College Transfer Program. First established in 1978, the Distinguished Scholar program provides $3,000 per academic year to students who have at least a 3.7 cumulative unweighted grade point average in high school, demonstrate superior artistic talent, and/or are National Merit Scholarship finalists. Career-based scholarships are designed to encourage students to pursue particular careers, including teaching and nursing (MHEC).


Within each of the five states, we purposively selected three high schools. Because local contexts vary within states, no three schools could be selected that completely represented the diversity that exists within any state. We used the following procedures to select high schools that both typify the “average” experience in the state and vary in key demographic and academic characteristics. First, the research team constructed a demographic and academic profile of all public high schools in each of the five states. We derived indicators for these profiles from data from the Common Core of Data, the U.S. Census Bureau, and each state’s department of education. Second, we selected three high schools within one district or metropolitan area to control for alternative explanations for observed differences across schools, including proximity to colleges and universities (layer 3 of the conceptual model in Figure 1) and characteristics of the local labor market (part of layer 4 of the conceptual model). We used the profiles to identify school districts and metropolitan areas with at least three high schools with varying demographic and academic indicators. States vary in the organizational structure of K–12 education. For example, in Maryland, each of the state’s 23 counties (and the City of Baltimore) is its own school district and thus includes multiple high schools. But Pennsylvania has 500 school districts within 67 counties. In states with only a small number of high schools per district, we identified three schools from one metropolitan area. The three schools in Maryland, three schools in Florida, and two of the three schools in California were in the same school district, whereas one school in California and the three schools in Georgia and Pennsylvania were in different school districts. We discussed potential school choices with experts within each state (e.g., representatives of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency for the Pennsylvania schools) to ensure that the selected districts/metropolitan areas and schools were “typical” of the state.


Within each of the five states, the three selected high schools may be characterized as relatively “low,” “middle,” or “high” resource. Table 2 shows that the percentages of Black and Hispanic students and the percentage of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch generally decline as the designated resource-level of the school increases. Indicators of college-going, including SAT test-taking rates, average SAT scores, and performance on state exams, increase as the resource category of the school increases.  


Table 2. Characteristics of Participating Schools: 2003–2004

School

Title I status

Number students

% Asian

% Black

% Hispanic

% White

% Free or reduced lunch



% Seniors taking the SAT



Average SAT score

% Passing state high school math exam

% Passing state high school reading exam


Number students per counselor

CA Low

Yes

3,803

6

2

78

13

37%

22%

873

67%

62%

475

CA Middle

Yes

2,583

6

1

33

56

20%

33%

1039

87%

83%

369

CA High

No

2,273

8

2

29

60

11%

56%

1135

89%

90%

455

             

FL Low

Yes

2,002

0

46

53

2

76%

25%

795

46%

25%

501

FL Middle

No

3,633

1

9

78

12

39%

57%

993

74%

51%

404

FL High

No

3,425

5

15

32

47

14%

74%

1062

87%

69%

489

             

GA Low

No

971

1

28

1

71

36%

56%

932

88%

89%

486

GA Middle

No

421

1

16

3

80

28%

60%

1077

94%

93%

421

GA High

No

1,851

3

6

3

89

11%

80%

1077

98%

97%

463

             

MD Low

No

1,984

11

34

20

35

20%

61%

1049

42%

56%

233

MD Middle

No

1,180

13

19

23

44

20%

56%

1091

52%

57%

215

MD High

No

1,878

13

8

12

67

5%

83%

1177

62%

76%

235

             

PA Low

Yes

625

0

51

9

40

54%

46%

817

20%

41%

213

PA Middle

Yes

738

1

9

4

86

16%

56%

999

45%

67%

185

PA High

No

2,523

5

1

1

93

3%

69%

1080

77%

84%

315

Source:  Perna et al. (2008).


DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSES


Reflecting Yin’s (2003a) emphasis on the role of theory in guiding case study research, the research team developed data collection protocols based on the conceptual framework (Figure 1) and a review of what is known from the literature about the predictors of college enrollment. The use of these protocols helped ensure comparability of data collection procedures across the 15 schools (Yin, 2003a). Part of a larger study of the ways that federal, state, and local policies influence college opportunity, the protocols included such questions as: What public policies and programs are designed to promote college opportunity for students attending this school? What are students’ college-related outcomes? What are the barriers to college opportunity for students attending this school? How do counselors, teachers, and parents promote and impede college opportunity?


The research team completed the protocols using multiple data sources, including the demographic and academic school profiles, a review of the federal, state, and local policies in each state, and individual and focus group interviews. Following the example of Freeman (1997), we used focus groups with students and parents. At each school, the research team conducted separate focus groups with 9th-grade students, 11th-grade students, and 9th- and 11th-grade parents. At most schools, we conducted two focus groups with students in each grade level and two focus groups with parents so that the number of participants per focus group ranged from 3 to 10. Although not without disadvantages, focus groups allow for a consideration of a larger number of perspectives than interviews and provide an opportunity for participants with similar backgrounds to actively engage with the moderator and other participants about the topic of interest (Krueger & Casey, 2000).


We also conducted semistructured interviews with each school counselor who had responsibilities related to college-going and at least four teachers at each school. All participating teachers taught 9th- and 11th-grade students in at least one college preparatory course. Participants for the study were recruited by a liaison at each school, usually a school counselor. Because of variations in local institutional review board requirements, recruitment of students and parents varied across schools. Some schools sent an invitation to participate to every student (i.e., all Maryland schools), whereas other schools recruited students believed to have rich information to share. All participating students reported aspiring to attend college. Parents were typically invited to participate via e-mailed invitations from the school contact. Each focus group and interview lasted between 45 and 90 minutes. The individual interviews and focus groups were audio-recorded and transcribed. Between 20 and 58 students, teachers, counselors, and parents at each school participated in the study, for a total of 596 participants.


To analyze the data, the research team first created a case study database to organize the information collected (Yin, 2003b). The database included transcriptions from the focus groups and interviews, as well as data from the policy analyses and demographic and academic profiles. We developed a preliminary list of codes using the conceptual framework and knowledge of prior research, while also allowing additional codes to emerge. Preliminary codes included known predictors of college enrollment (e.g., academic preparation, financial resources, college-related knowledge) and potentially relevant dimensions of “context,” including a student’s interactions with family members about college and financial aid, the ways that school staff and programs promote college enrollment and provide information about financial aid, and the role of school, state, and federal programs and policies in promoting college-related knowledge and behaviors. We employed HyperResearch software to assist in the coding and compiling of data into categories. Following this process, we worked to better characterize and substantiate overlapping themes, eventually condensing the data into overarching themes.


Several strategies ensure the trustworthiness and credibility of the findings and conclusions. To ensure construct validity, the research team collected information from multiple sources (Yin, 2003b). In addition, we produced a draft case study report for each school and asked the primary contact at each school (a school counselor) to review the report and provide feedback. The use of the case study protocol and case study database also helps to ensure reliability (Yin, 2003b).


FINDINGS


The findings draw primarily from the interview data, incorporating information from other sources as appropriate. The findings describe perceptions and expectations about aid, the ways that characteristics of the school attended and state financial aid policy inform these perceptions and expectations, and the ways that these perceptions and expectations inform students’ college-related behaviors.  


PERCEPTIONS AND EXPECTATIONS OF FINANCIAL AID


Consistent with prior research (Grodsky & Jones, 2004; Horn et al., 2003), few students or parents at any school have accurate or complete knowledge of college prices or financial aid. Even when pressed, most students are reluctant to offer a specific estimate of the price of attending college. Both 9th- and 11th-grade students and parents consistently express the general view that college prices are “high.” About half of all students and parents are aware that prices depend on the institution and are higher at out-of-state schools than in-state schools, higher at private institutions than public institutions, and higher at Ivy League institutions than other private institutions. Only a small number of students and parents recognize different types of charges, including tuition, fees, room and board, books, and transportation. At least one student or parent at about half the schools expressed concern about the “expensive” nature of books.  


Although very few know the specifics of any aid program, most participating students and parents have a general awareness that financial aid is available based on financial need and academic achievement to offset the price of attendance. Some students may be using this general awareness of financial aid availability to delay learning about college prices. This view is best expressed by a ninth grader at the Florida low-resource school, who said, “Most people depend on financial aid, so they don’t really—they’re not really aware about how much it costs.” Similarly, an 11th grader at the California middle-resource school said, “I don’t know exactly how much it costs, but I know I can’t get in [i.e., attend] if my parents pay for the whole thing. I have to apply for lots of scholarships and things.”


Knowledge of state financial aid appears to be informed by the state context, particularly characteristics of the available state aid program, because knowledge is greater at schools in Florida and Georgia than at schools in the other states. At the schools in California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, small numbers of students and parents reported having heard of the state’s aid program, and even fewer were able to provide any details. For example, when explicitly asked about the availability of state financial aid, a ninth-grade parent at the Maryland low-resource school responded, “It’s not something that you get information about really. You just hear people talking about them, people who are familiar with them, you know, will be talking about them, but you don’t generally have any information on that.” In a focus group at the middle-resource school in California, five 9th graders reported having heard of Cal Grants, but none was able to describe how to qualify. At the low-resource school in California, only one participating student (an 11th grader) seemed aware that Cal Grants are awarded based on financial need.


In contrast, most students and parents at the schools in Florida and Georgia were aware of their state’s merit-based aid programs (e.g., four out of five 11th graders at a focus group at the Florida high-resource school and three out of five 11th graders in a focus group at the low-resource Florida school). When asked how they would pay the price of attending college, students and parents at the Georgia high-resource school listed HOPE first, followed by parents, and then other sources, including scholarships, students’ own employment, grants, and loans.  


Students and parents at the schools in Georgia and Florida were also aware of the criteria for receiving the state aid, although more 11th graders than 9th graders appeared to know the specific requirements. Students at the participating Georgia schools noted that receiving HOPE depended on their grade point average, whereas participating students at the Florida schools observed that receiving Bright Futures depended on admissions test scores and grade point average. Even a small number of students and parents in states other than Georgia had basic knowledge of Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship program. As one example, an 11th grader at the Maryland low-resource school explained, “In Georgia, they have this policy where if you maintain above—anybody—any student maintains above a 3.0 the entire four years of college, he can go to any college in the state for free. The government will pay for it.”  


When present, knowledge of state aid appears to reduce uncertainty about the ability to pay college prices. The relationship between knowledge of aid in Georgia and Florida and the expectation of having the resources needed to pay college prices is best illustrated by the following quote from a parent at the Florida middle-resource school: “Thank goodness we have Bright Futures because I don’t know how we would do it without [it].” Similarly, a parent at the Georgia middle-resource school said, “I don’t know how we would afford [college] without [HOPE].” Along the same lines, a ninth grader at the Georgia low-resource school said, “[Because of HOPE,] even if I can’t pay for it then I can still go somehow.”


This relative certainty about the availability of aid to help pay college prices at the schools in Florida and Georgia is in sharp contrast to the lack of certainty at schools in the other three states. Reflecting Kane’s (1999) findings about need-based financial aid more generally, at schools in California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, students and parents consistently described how college prices are “really a mystery,” because families did not know the out-of-pocket costs of attendance until after students had been accepted for admission and applied for financial aid. This uncertainty was best expressed by a ninth-grade parent at the Pennsylvania middle-resource school, who stated, “Seems like you don’t know until you apply and get accepted, and then see what the financial offer is, and then you figure out, well, could we swing that or not.”


Nonetheless, even in Florida and Georgia, knowledge of the state aid program is not universal nor always complete. For example, although most participating parents identified Bright Futures as an important source of aid for their children’s college education, a parent at the Florida high-resource school admitted, “I hadn’t heard of Bright Futures ‘til now” (i.e., participating in this focus group). A counselor at the Florida middle-resource school reported her frustration that not all students and parents were aware of Bright Futures despite efforts by her office, the media, and others to provide information. She stated,


But yesterday when [a student’s] father was in my office and—I asked him if he knew anything about that Florida Bright Future and he didn’t. And it just amazes me that all the advertising that is on TV and in newspapers, on billboards, what we give through our high school, and when somebody says they never heard of it, I have trouble understanding how you could not have heard of it.  


Students attending schools in Florida and Georgia who were unaware of available state aid appeared uncertain about their ability to pay college prices. An 11th grader at the Georgia middle-resource school implied this by stating, “It’s kind of hard to pay for college because . . . if you’re going to go somewhere like UGA [University of Georgia], where are you going to get $9,000 a year, plus books and transportation and living fees?”


Financial aid programs also do not reduce uncertainty about how to pay college prices when students conclude that they will not meet the eligibility criteria. A teacher at the Florida middle-resource school observed that the state’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program reduced anxiety about college prices only among the school’s high-achieving students. She stated, “They’re concerned about how they’re going to pay for all this. So Bright Futures with my Honors kids. When I teach general level, they’re very concerned about school. They’re very concerned about financial aid.”


At least three other contextual forces may also limit certainty about the availability of financial aid even in states with relatively well-known programs. One force is changes in eligibility requirements. Staff at the three schools in Georgia referred to the changes. In a representative comment, a teacher at the Georgia low-resource school stated, “They change [HOPE eligibility criteria] and they’re changing it again this year. They’re making it tougher.”


A second force that may limit certainty about the availability of financial aid is the complexity and number of available programs. Even with the seemingly straightforward Bright Futures program, a teacher at the Florida middle-resource school implied the negative consequences of complexity by stating, “So they do have information. But I would say that they are either so overwhelmed by all, you know, the process or do not understand that that’s money out there that they can use if they apply for these grants.”


The third and most pervasive contextual force restricting certainty about the availability of financial aid is the limits on school counselors’ ability to help students acquire relevant information. Students, parents, and counselors at all 15 schools identified constraints on the availability of college and financial aid counseling. In a representative comment, a counselor at the Georgia low-resource school explained students’ lack of knowledge of financial aid: “There’s no way that we [counselors] can do it all, you know—not and keep up with the rest of the school.” The inability of counselors to do “it all” is not surprising, given that the ratio of students to counselors exceeds 400 to 1 at 8 of the 15 study schools (see Table 2) and that other research describes numerous other forces that limit the time counselors have available for college counseling (see for example McDonough, 2005; Perna et al., 2008).


HOW PERCEPTIONS AND EXPECTATIONS OF AID INFORM COLLEGE-RELATED BEHAVIORS


The data also suggest that perceptions of and expectations for financial aid inform students’ college-related behaviors and that this relationship is influenced by characteristics of the school attended and the state aid program. Perceptions and expectations of aid seem to inform three college-related outcomes: academic achievement, college enrollment, and college choice.


Academic achievement.

In focus groups in each of the 15 schools, at least one participating student and parent articulated a motivation to excel academically in order to receive a “scholarship.” In a representative comment, an 11th grader at the Maryland low-resource school stated that to afford college, “You have to get a scholarship. For that, you have to work really hard. And then once, like, you slack off in high school, you can’t come back and fix it.” Along the same lines, a parent at the Pennsylvania middle-resource school said, “I am aware that the more—the better academically your child is, it seems the system leans toward that student. . .  . The more options for that person. The average student—I don’t know.”


In addition to the general awareness that strong academic performance leads to “scholarships,” students attending the low- and middle-resource schools in Florida and all three schools in Georgia described their interest in meeting the specific academic eligibility criteria for their state’s aid program. Similar patterns are not evident at the schools in the other three states (i.e., states where academic criteria are not used to award most aid). This motivational dimension was expressed by an 11th grader at the Georgia middle-resource school, who said, “I’m just trying to maintain my GPA so I can try to get HOPE.” Similarly, at the Florida low-resource school, an 11th grader said that the Bright Futures Scholarship “encourages you to work harder in order to reach those requirements of that certain grant or scholarship.”


The motivation of students in Georgia and Florida to meet academic criteria is consistent with the goals of these programs. An explicit purpose of the HOPE Scholarship program “is to encourage academic achievement of Georgians attending secondary and postsecondary institutions in Georgia” (Georgia Student Finance Commission, 2008, p. 5). Similarly, Florida statutes specify that the purpose of the Bright Futures Scholarship is “to reward any Florida high school graduate who meets recognition of high academic achievement and enrolls” in an eligible in-state program within 3 years of his or her high school graduation (Florida Legislature, 2008).


Parental knowledge of the academic eligibility criteria for aid in Georgia and Florida also appears to prompt at least some parents in these two states to encourage their students to achieve the levels of academic performance needed to earn the state merit aid. One parent at the Florida high-resource school expressed this view: “You’re constantly preaching to your child, ‘You’re shooting for Bright Futures, you’re shooting for Bright Futures.’” At the three Georgia schools, school staff described the effects of the program on the involvement of parents. In a representative comment, a teacher at the Georgia low-resource school explained, “Parents of your college prep students are conscientious about their [students’] grades because of the HOPE Scholarship in Georgia and they really push that, ‘You got to keep your B average. You got to keep your B average because that affects you when you go to college.’”


One potential unintended negative consequence of perceptions of academic eligibility requirements may be grade inflation. Although one teacher at the middle-resource school in Georgia schools does not believe that they “give more As or Bs now because of HOPE,” other staff at this school describe the pressure they receive from students and parents regarding students’ grades. For example, a teacher at this school said, “A few times this semester I’ve seen it as almost a negative thing in that parents have been putting pressure on me about the grades. It’s got to be up to an 80 from a 79. And I’ve seen that a little bit, especially for juniors I teach.”


A second and more commonly referenced potential negative unintended consequence may be to reduce the rigor of students’ curricular choices in order to ensure that students earn the grades needed to qualify for aid. Data documenting the actual effects of any of the student aid programs on students’ curricular choices are not available. But, teachers, counselors, and parents at the Georgia middle- and high-resource schools worry that the HOPE Scholarship encourages at least some students to take less rigorous courses. In a representative comment, a teacher at the Georgia middle-resource school said, “I think that some of them don’t take the harder classes because they’re afraid it is going to damage their GPA and they would rather not risk what their grades look like than to have the more challenging classes.”


A few parents at the Georgia middle-resource school described their efforts to limit their students’ efforts to take less rigorous courses. In the words of one parent, “I’ve heard my son’s wanted to—he wanted to change to a tech track and I refused to allow it. I did not allow him to take less than what he was capable of doing.”


Nonetheless, other parents at this school believed that the availability of HOPE encourages students to take less rigorous courses. In the words of a parent at this school,


I just think students will take less strenuous courses in high school because of HOPE. And we have a decision for next year, that he’s been recommended for a certain math class, but then you think how will it affect—and it’s not just in his circumstance but it’s in a lot of other kids’ and I hear it every day. They make choices to take a less stringent course because of HOPE.


Georgia legislators are attempting to address this issue by changing HOPE eligibility requirements. In March 2007, the Georgia Senate passed a bill that “would give more credit for taking honors courses so that those who take tougher classes would be more likely to qualify for the aid” (“In Brief: Expanding HOPE,” 2007).


College enrollment. The relationship between perceptions of financial aid and college enrollment seems to depend on the resource level of the school. At the high-resource schools in all five states—that is, the schools with the smallest shares of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, the highest percentages of White students, and the highest average academic performance (see Table 2)—most students and parents are relatively unconcerned about college prices or financial aid because they are certain that the students are going to college and that students’ parents will have a way to pay their college expenses. In a representative comment, an 11th grader at the California high-resource school stated, “I haven’t really thought about financial [costs of attending college], but the only thing my parents have said is, ‘Don’t worry. You get into college and we’ll pay for it.’” A parent at this school suggested that the “decision” is where, not whether, to enroll:


We’re looking at every means possible all through this. We’re encouraging our son to go to a UC [University of California campus], but if he’s really got his heart set on private, then we’ll just explore every and all possibilities. And, I think, you know, other parents I’ve talked to feel the same way.


Uncertainty about the availability of financial aid appears more problematic for college enrollment of students attending the middle- and low-resource schools. Although at least one student at each of these schools also believed that inadequate finances would not limit college enrollment, many parents at these schools were uncertain about their ability to pay. This uncertainty likely reflected families’ lower average incomes, given that rates of eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch were higher at these schools than the high-resource schools (Table 2).  


At all schools, school staff lacked data describing their students’ actual receipt of state aid or the extent to which state aid improves students’ college enrollment or persistence rates. At the schools in Florida and Georgia, school staff were particularly eager to know more about their students’ eligibility for and retention of state merit aid from college entrance to college completion.  This view is best articulated by a teacher at the Georgia low-resource school who stated, “I would like to see some of the statistics on students from this county that have applied for HOPE and have kept it through college. That would help us as educators I think. You know. To encourage them we need some of that data.”


The merit-based aid programs in Georgia and Florida focus on increasing college enrollment by improving students’ academic readiness. In contrast, the need-based aid programs in California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania focus on increasing college enrollment by reducing the financial barriers for students from low-income families. Despite these differential goals, only participants at the Georgia schools indicated that state aid helps to reduce financial barriers to college enrollment. This view is summarized by a teacher at the Georgia middle-resource school who asserted that “finances” are not a barrier to college enrollment “because of the HOPE Scholarship and the other financial aid that’s available.” In somewhat different words, a teacher at the Georgia high-resource school said,


I think there are students here certainly that need that financial aid and it has been a great boon to them to be able to have that . . . I do think that it has opened the door for a few students—I have no idea about numbers—but some students that otherwise would never be able to cross over the threshold to go to the University of Georgia.


School staff hold inconsistent perceptions about the extent to which the Georgia and Florida aid programs improve college enrollment rates for students from lower income families. Some staff in Georgia believe that the availability of state merit aid is especially important for promoting college enrollment among students from lower income families. For example, a counselor at the Georgia low-resource school suggested the importance of HOPE to the enrollment of the low-income students at her school: “If they’re not HOPE eligible a lot of them just don’t go.” Similarly, a teacher at the Georgia middle-resource school said,


I would say that, if there has been a change [associated with the availability of HOPE], it’s in the group that probably could not afford it, or they would have had to have—the child would probably had to have worked, or the parents worked extra. . . . And you’re seeing more minorities or more people that probably just said, “I can’t afford it,” that go on.


But school staff in Florida believed that state merit aid has a relatively small impact on college enrollment for students from low-income families, given that relatively few students at the low-resource schools are eligible for the awards. A counselor at the Florida low-resource school explained that changes in the Bright Futures program over time have increased the number of students from this school who are eligible for the aid. The number of recipients from this school is still small, however, as the counselor at the Florida low-resource school explained:


It’s a good thing that they’ve lowered the test scores, or added the components, you know, so more students have access to it. But we don’t have huge numbers. You know, like this year, my class might—I might have 30 kids that are going to get Bright Futures. Well if you went to [more affluent high schools] you might have 300 or 400.


A small number of comments suggested forces that may limit potential benefits of financial aid to college enrollment, especially for students from low-income families, even when individuals are aware of the availability of the aid. One force is uncertainty about how to pay costs that are not covered by financial aid. For example, although covering tuition, required fees, and a book allowance, the Georgia HOPE Scholarship program does not cover costs of room and board. Indicating this uncertainty, an 11th grader at the Georgia high-resource school expressed the related concern by explaining,   


I’m worried about it because I don’t think I’m—I don’t think that my parents should hand me everything and I want to work, you know, to put myself through or whatever. And I’m going to have the HOPE Scholarship. But there’s also, you know, living costs, and if I go to UGA then, you know, dorm fees and everything like that. And it’s going to be a struggle to do good in school and keep a job up to pay for everything.


A second force that may limit the potential effects of aid on college enrollment is uncertainty about eligibility beyond the first year. This concern was expressed only at the Georgia schools. In a representative comment, a teacher at the Georgia low-resource school said, “A large percentage get HOPE. I don’t think they keep it very long, but they get it.” Similarly, a teacher at the Georgia middle-resource school said, “Money [is a barrier] because if they don’t keep the HOPE, then they lose kind of their free ride into someplace like Georgia or Gainesville College where it pays for all of it.”


A third force that may restrict the benefits of state aid (and other government-sponsored programs more generally) is mistrust of government. A very small number of parents voiced their reluctance to rely on the HOPE Scholarship because of their skepticism of government programs. In the words of a parent at the Georgia low-resource school, “I don’t count on the HOPE Scholarship being there because I don’t trust politicians to keep it there. So I want a backup to the HOPE Scholarship.”


College choice. At all schools, at least some students and parents described plans to select colleges and universities based on college prices, specifically preferring relatively less (rather than more) expensive institutions (e.g., two-year rather than four-year; in-state rather than out-of-state; public rather than private). Despite this common attention to the role of net price (i.e., college prices less financial aid), the ways that perceptions about college prices influence college choices seem to be informed by the characteristics of the state aid program.  


At middle-resource schools in California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the decision to attend an in-state rather than an out-of-state institution is driven largely by the desire to take advantage of in-state tuition. In the words of an 11th grader at the California middle-resource school, “If you attend a UC or a CSU then like you get in cheaper than like someone who comes in from out of state. So that’s one reason why people want to stay here.” Similarly, an 11th grader at the Pennsylvania middle-resource school said, “If you go to a state school, and it’s cheaper than an out-of-state school, you might be receiving the same education, but because you’re in the state, it’s going to be cheaper. Why wouldn’t you pay for in-state?”


Although the Pennsylvania State Grant may be used to attend institutions outside the state of Pennsylvania (but not in the neighboring states of Maryland, New Jersey, and New York; Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency [PHEAA], 2008), California’s Cal Grant, Maryland’s Educational Assistance Grant, Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, and Florida’s Bright Futures are all limited to attendance at an in-state institution. But only at high schools in Georgia and Florida did students indicate that they preferred in-state institutions to out-of-state institutions in order to take advantage of the state aid program. In a comment representative of this perspective, a parent at the Florida middle-resource school said, “Our youngest son wants to stay home because he wants to save money. I mean he says, ‘If Bright Futures pays for my school, why should I go anywhere?’” Similarly, at the three Georgia schools, relatively few students attend a college outside of Georgia because of HOPE. In the words of a counselor at the Georgia middle-resource school, “With HOPE, that pretty much has shut [out-of-state enrollment] down. Very few . . . usually only one a year and those are usually our top students who do get financial aid other ways, other than HOPE.”  


Nonetheless, the potential impact of state aid on reducing “brain drain” or out-migration of the state’s “best and brightest” students—one of the goals of many state merit aid programs (Doyle, 2008; Heller, 2004)—may be limited because the availability of state-merit aid seems to play a relatively smaller role in the college destinations of students at the high-resource schools than at the middle- and low-resource schools. Although high-achieving students attend all schools, the high-resource schools have greater concentrations of these students than other schools. Counselors at the Florida high-resource school reported that the Bright Futures program is a common source for paying college expenses. However, about a third of the participating students at this school indicated that despite the availability of this program, their parents were willing to pay the price of attending an out-of-state institution. A ninth grader at the Florida high-resource school stated this view simply: “With my dad, he just says, ‘I’ll pay for it, wherever you want to go, I’ll pay for it.’” Similarly, at the Georgia high-resource school, students, counselors, and parents indicated that despite the availability of HOPE, some share of students at this school would attend out-of-state institutions. An 11th grader at this school stated that she was “turning down HOPE” in order to attend an out-of-state school (i.e., “the school I chose”). Along the same lines, a counselor at the school stated,


It was kind of surprising to me when I started working here about the top of the class. A lot of them were staying in the state because of HOPE. But I noticed last year, we seemed to have a lot more students, or a lot of the students at the top of the class were looking outside of Georgia.


The greatest benefits of the Georgia HOPE Scholarship to expanding college choice may be for students attending the middle-resource school. Several parents at this school indicated that if HOPE was unavailable, they would pay college prices, but their children’s choice of college to attend would be constrained. As expressed by a parent at the Georgia middle-resource school, “The options are more limited as to where they could go for us. If they don’t qualify, they’ll go, but they’re going to have to go to one that we’ll be able to afford the tuition.”


DISCUSSION


Several aspects of the research design limit the conclusions that may be drawn from this study. First, the generalizability of the findings is necessarily restricted by the relatively small number of schools (n = 15) and states (n = 5) considered. Second, although the sampling strategy was designed to allow for an examination of different aspects of context (e.g., state, district, school, family), these contextual dimensions may be confounded. For example, some schools are in the same district (e.g., California, Florida, and Maryland), thereby potentially confounding state and district policies. Schools were selected in part based on variation in family and academic characteristics, thereby confounding family and school contexts. Third, findings are limited by the perspectives of students, parents, and school staff who agreed to participate in the study. Variations in the procedures used to select participants may contribute to some of the observed differences across schools. Fourth, beyond informing the selection of states, consideration of the state context is largely limited to characteristics of the state-sponsored aid program. Finally, the study focuses on perceptions and expectations of aid at one point in time, with limited data describing actual college-related outcomes.


Despite these limitations, this study addresses gaps in knowledge in several ways. First, the results suggest the importance of considering perceptions and expectations about aid, rather than actual amounts of aid, when examining the relationship between financial aid and students’ college-related decisions. The results of this study confirm what has been documented in survey data—namely, that most students and parents generally lack specific knowledge of college prices and financial aid (Grodsky & Jones, 2004; Horn et al., 2003). But, through the use of qualitative data, the results also provide a more in-depth understanding of these perceptions. For example, although few know the specifics of any aid program, most students and parents have a general awareness that financial aid is available based on financial need and other criteria.


The results also shed light on students’ expectations for receiving financial aid. Students in Florida and Georgia are generally more certain that they will receive financial aid to pay college prices than students in other states. But even in Florida and Georgia, some uncertainty about aid remains because some are uncertain about whether students will meet academic eligibility requirements, others are uncertain about how to pay the price of expenses not covered by the aid, and still others are uncertain about whether aid will be awarded after the first year of college enrollment. These uncertainties appear greater in schools that have lower college-going rates and fewer resources to help address these uncertainties (i.e., the lower- than the higher-resource schools) and compounded by changes in program eligibility criteria. Ideally, financial aid would serve as a lever for reducing financial barriers directly at the time of college enrollment, but also indirectly by encouraging students to engage in behaviors that increase their readiness for college, including aspiring to attend college, becoming adequately academically prepared to enroll and succeed, and considering a range of potential college choices. But to achieve the indirect benefits, students must be confident that if they engage in these college readiness activities, they will have the financial resources needed to pay college prices. They must also achieve this confidence early enough in the educational pipeline to change their college-related behaviors.


Second, the results suggest that perceptions and expectations of aid are informed by the characteristics of the school attended and the available state aid program. With regard to the school context, the findings show differences across schools in perceptions of aid and implications of these perceptions. At the high-resource schools, a lack of knowledge about college prices and financial aid seems to be relatively unimportant; students at these schools are confident that they will enroll in college and that their parents will have the needed resources to pay college prices (i.e., their habitus defines college enrollment as the expected behavior). This finding is consistent with other research showing that the enrollment of students from high-income families is less sensitive to changes in prices than the enrollment of students from low-income families (Heller, 1997). But at the low- and middle-resource schools, where family resources and college enrollment rates are lower, substantially fewer families are certain about the availability of aid to pay college prices. Moreover, these schools generally do not have the resources, particularly in terms of school-provided college counseling, to educate students and parents about the availability of financial aid (McDonough, 2005; Perna et al., 2008).


The findings suggest that characteristics of available state aid—one component of the state context—also influence students’ perceptions of financial aid. Participating students attending schools in California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania know virtually nothing about available state aid, whereas most students and families at the participating schools in Florida and Georgia are aware of not only the availability of state grants but also the eligibility criteria. Although the selection of schools from the same district in some states (California, Florida, Maryland) may confound the roles of the state and district, other data suggest that it is the characteristics of the state aid, and not the school district, that explain this finding. For example, at the schools in Maryland, students, parents, teachers, and counselors lack knowledge of aid despite a clear districtwide commitment that all students in the district should enroll in college (Perna et al., 2008). Although districts in both Maryland and Florida supported college and career centers within the selected schools (see Perna et al.), knowledge of aid was greater for participants in the Florida schools than in the Maryland schools.


The finding that knowledge and certainty of aid are greater at schools in Florida and Georgia (i.e., two merit-based aid states) than at schools in other states is consistent with observations by other scholars (e.g., Doyle, 2008). The findings from this study build on prior research by suggesting the ways that merit-based aid programs may better promote knowledge of aid than need-based aid does. Understanding the reasons for differences in knowledge of aid is an important contribution, given that others have noted the absence of research examining the ways that the design, operations, or marketing of student aid programs influence students’ and their families’ awareness, understanding, and prediction of college prices and financial aid (Mundel & Coles, 2004; Perna & Titus, 2004).


The results suggest at least three reasons why knowledge and understanding of state financial aid are greater at schools in Florida and Georgia than in the other states. First, differences across states in knowledge and certainty may reflect differences in the types and timing of actions that the merit-based and need-based aid programs require. Merit-based aid programs presumably require students to act to ensure that they meet the particular academic criteria for the aid. Findings from this study describe how students and parents are motivated to ensure that students meet the academic eligibility criteria for the state aid.


In contrast, although students may have the ability to improve their academic achievement, they cannot change their financial need. Need-based aid programs require action, but only later in the college-preparation pipeline, because students cannot receive this aid unless they apply for college admission and complete (often with the help of at least one guardian) required financial aid forms. A substantial number of students fail to complete this action, thereby forgoing need-based aid for which they are eligible. In 1999–2000, 1.7 million low- and moderate-income undergraduates who were enrolled for-credit at higher education institutions nationwide did not complete the FAFSA (King, 2004). About one half of these individuals were estimated to be eligible to receive a federal Pell Grant. More than half of fall 1999 undergraduates submitted a FAFSA after the March deadline, likely limiting opportunities for state and/or institutional grant awards (King).


A second characteristic of state aid programs that may explain differences in knowledge of aid across states is differences in the magnitude of available aid. Table 1 shows that the primary need-based aid programs represent less than half of average tuition and fees at in-state public four-year institutions in Maryland and Pennsylvania. In California, the maximum Cal Grant exceeds average in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions because, unlike the other states, the maximum award is higher for students attending private rather than public four-year institutions. In 2009, the maximum Cal Grant A was $2,772 at California State Universities, $6,636 at University of California campuses, and $9,708 at private institutions (California Student Aid Commission, 2009). In contrast, the Georgia HOPE Scholarship program covers 100% of tuition and fees at in-state public four-year institutions. Florida’s Bright Futures program covers between 75% and 100% of tuition and fees at in-state public four-year institutions.


A third characteristic that may promote students’ knowledge of aid is program transparency and simplicity. The state aid programs in Florida and Georgia are transparent because, as demonstrated in this study, students know the parameters of their eligibility and award amount up front. The Florida and Georgia programs are simple because students know the award that they will qualify for if they meet the eligibility criteria (e.g., 100% tuition and fees at the University of Georgia). In contrast to the aid programs in the other states (as well as federal need-based aid programs and institutional aid programs), students do not need to wait to learn how much aid they will receive from Bright Futures or HOPE until after applying for admission to college, submitting a financial aid application, and awaiting a response from a college or university (Kane, 1999).  


A related characteristic that may promote knowledge of aid is the strategies that states use to communicate about available aid. Although we did not ask participants to comment on communication strategies, a review of relevant state Web sites suggests that information about the Georgia HOPE Scholarship and Florida Bright Futures Scholarship is simple, straightforward, and assuring. The academic requirements for receiving the Georgia HOPE Scholarship are plainly stated on the GAcollege411 (2008) Web page for the program. On its Web site, the Florida Department of Education, Office of Student Financial Assistance (2008) provides easy-to-read tables summarizing the academic requirements for each of its three Bright Futures Scholarship awards (i.e., Florida Academic Scholars Award, Florida Medallion Scholars Award, and Florida Goal Seal Vocational Scholars Awards).


In contrast, information on relevant Web sites about the need-based aid programs in California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania informs students and their families only that awards depend on their “financial need” and may change after the first year of college enrollment to reflect a family’s changed financial circumstance and availability of state resources. Information about the maximum award for the Pennsylvania State Grant Program is relatively obscure, listed as a response to the 25th of 31 “frequently asked questions” on PHEAA’s (2008) Pennsylvania State Grant Program Web site. The response also provides a technically correct but opaque answer: “Maximum grant awards are based on available funding, demonstrated financial need, and the allowable educational costs individual students are expected to incur at the institution they are attending” (PHEAA). Students’ certainty about the availability of this form of aid may also be reduced by other information on the PHEAA Web page, including the disclosure that students may not receive an award in more than one academic year if their financial circumstances change. The California Student Aid Commission’s (2008) Web site repeatedly states that students must “meet any minimum GPA requirements” and “submit a verified Cal Grant GPA” to receive a Cal Grant but does not provide an equally visible definition of these academic requirements. Maryland’s description of the Educational Assistance (EA) Grant is also obscure and raises doubts about the availability of the aid:   


Students attending four-year institutions will be awarded an EA Grant equal to 40% of OSFA adjusted need. Students attending community colleges will be awarded an EA Grant equal to 60% of OSFA adjusted need. The minimum annual award amount is $400 and the maximum award is $3,000. Should you be offered and accept certain State scholarship awards, your EA Grant will be recalculated. . . . Funds may not be available to award all eligible students. (MHEC, 2008)


A final conclusion that may be drawn from this study is that perceptions of and expectations about financial aid may promote college attainment indirectly by encouraging students to engage in other behaviors that promote college access and success, particularly academic preparation. Others have concluded that available research does not establish whether merit-based aid programs improve students’ academic readiness for college (Doyle, 2008; Dynarski, 2004). Identifying effective policy levers for encouraging students to become adequately academically prepared is especially important given the known importance of academic preparation to degree completion (Adelman, 2006) and the need to raise the nation’s degree completion rates (e.g., State Higher Education Executive Officers, 2008). In this study, although some students at all schools report a general aspiration to earn an “academic” scholarship, students at schools in Florida and Georgia appear directed toward meeting the specific academic eligibility criteria for their state grant program. This focus may have unintended consequences for the rigor of students’ selected courses and grade inflation. However, knowledge of the academic requirements for receiving state merit aid appears to stimulate both students’ and parents’ attention to students’ academic preparation for college and may consequently improve the likelihood that students graduate from high school with the academic preparation required not only to enroll in college but also to persist to bachelor’s degree completion (Adelman).  


IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH


The findings from this study suggest several recommendations for future research. First, to address the generalizability limitations, future research should test the findings from this study using other methods of analyses and sources of data. Quantitative analyses of large-scale databases and randomly selected samples of students may be useful for testing the relationship between the characteristics of the state and school contexts, and students’ college enrollment behaviors. Such analyses should draw on multiple theoretical frameworks, including not only human capital theory but also perspectives that help to address the limitations of this theory.


Second, although the results of this study suggest several programmatic features that may promote student knowledge of and expectations for financial aid, future research should further explore the ways that these and other program characteristics play a role. The lack of awareness of the state aid programs in California and Pennsylvania is particularly troubling, given the magnitude of investment in these programs (see Table 1). Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation in terms of the percentage of higher education operating expenses that are allocated to state grants (NASSGAP, 2008). By failing to influence students’ and their families’ perceptions and expectations about the availability of aid early in the educational pipeline, these programs may be missing an opportunity to use aid to encourage a range of college-related outcomes, including academic preparation and achievement, enrollment, and choice. Developing a better understanding of the program characteristics that improve knowledge of financial aid programs is also important, given constraints described in this and other studies on the availability of high school counselors to provide financial aid information to students (McDonough, 2005; Perna et al., 2008). Future research should attempt to isolate how particular program components (e.g., student eligibility requirements, magnitude, transparency, simplicity) and particular communication strategies (e.g., Web sites, television advertisements, and so on) may influence students’ and their families’ perceptions of financial aid. Future research should also consider ways to design, implement, and market need-based financial aid programs to not only preserve the focus on meeting financial need but also simply and transparently communicate the award that a student with a given family income can expect to receive.  


Third, although the findings suggest that perceptions and expectations of aid may encourage students to engage in behaviors that promote their academic preparation, more research is needed on the intended and unintended consequences of aid programs with academic eligibility criteria. This study suggests that the unintended consequences may include grade inflation and enrollment in less rigorous courses. Like other research (Farrell, 2004; Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, 2003; Heller & Marin, 2004; Heller & Rasmussen, 2002), the results of this study also raise questions about the extent to which programs that award aid based on academic criteria improve college-related outcomes for students from low-income families. In this study, the potential benefits of the aid programs in Florida and Georgia to students’ college enrollment and choice appear relatively concentrated among students attending middle-resource schools. This finding is consistent with other research showing that the effects of the Georgia HOPE program on college enrollment are greater for middle- and upper-income students and White students than for low-income students and Black students (Dynarski, 2002, 2004). In the current study, school staff at all schools in Florida and Georgia believed that the availability of merit-aid reduced the net price of college enrollment, but some also noted that this aid, by definition, plays less of a role for students who do not have the required levels of academic achievement. This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that, with the apparent simplicity and transparency of state merit-aid programs, some students may conclude that the academic eligibility criteria are impossible to achieve and consequently lower their educational aspirations and forgo other college-preparatory activities (Mundel, 2008).


Recent growth in state merit aid (College Board, 2008) and the establishment of the federal Academic Competitiveness Grants and Smart Grants suggest  policy makers’ interest in using student aid to motivate students to become adequately academically prepared to enroll and succeed in college. Moreover, adequate academic preparation is a key predictor of persistence to degree completion after enrolling in college (Adelman, 2006). Therefore, future research should further explore the ways that financial aid programs may be constructed to promote academic preparation and eliminate financial barriers, while also minimizing any unintended negative consequences (McDonough Calderone, & Purdy, 2007).  


A final area for future research pertains to the apparent lack of information that staff have about the actual use of financial aid among a school’s students and the ways that financial aid promotes their students’ college-related outcomes. Providing this information seems particularly important at low-resource schools, where students and their families are less certain about their ability to pay college prices and college counseling is less available to address this uncertainty. One potential mechanism for providing this information may be a state-sponsored longitudinal student-level data system along the lines of that recommended by others (e.g., Dougherty & Mellor, 2007; Ewell, 2007; Venezia, Finney, & Callan, 2007). Such a data system would track students’ experiences and performance across successive educational levels. Without systematic, longitudinal data, school staff rely only on their own perceptions and anecdotal information. Regardless of state progress in developing longitudinal data systems that follow students across successive educational levels, future research should explore the best ways to inform school staff about the actual success of students in acquiring and retaining financial aid, as well as the effects of improving school staff’s knowledge on students’ college-related outcomes.   


CONCLUDING NOTE


Given their popularity, merit-based state grant programs will not disappear anytime soon. Even in the state of Pennsylvania—a state with a strong historical commitment to need-based aid—two bills were introduced in the 2007 legislative session to establish state-funded merit aid programs.1 The results of this study encourage attention not to the relative benefits of “need” versus “merit” aid programs per se, but to the implications for college opportunity of students’ expectations and perceptions of aid and the ways that these perceptions are informed by the characteristics of the aid program and the characteristics of a school that a student attends.  


Acknowledgments


This research was funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Lumina Foundation or its employees. The authors thank Scott Thomas, the co–principal investigator for the broader study on which this article is based, and other individuals who assisted with the collection of data: Robert Anderson, Angela Bell, Michelle Cooper, Greg Dubrow, and Heather Rowan-Kenyon.


Note


1. House Bill 108 proposed to establish the Pennsylvania Scholastic Achievement Award, which would award full tuition scholarships to high school seniors earning at least a 3.0 grade point average and at least 1000 on the SAT or 21 on the ACT; graduating in the top 5% of the high school class; and attending an eligible in-state institution full time (Pennsylvania General Assembly, 2007a). House Bill 1722 proposed to establish the Reliable Educational Assistance for College Hopefuls Scholarship (REACH), a program that would provide full tuition scholarships to students who attend eligible in-state institutions full time, who earn at least a 3.0 grade point average in their sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school, and who complete community service and other requirements (Pennsylvania General Assembly, 2007b).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 5, 2011, p. 895-933
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15934, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 1:41:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Laura Perna
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    LAURA W. PERNA is associate professor in the higher education management program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her current scholarship focuses on understanding the ways that federal, state, and school policies and programs influence college access and success, particularly for racial/ethnic minorities and individuals of lower socioeconomic status. Among other publications, she is coauthor of “Barriers to college opportunity: The unintended consequences of state-mandated tests” in Educational Policy (2009) and “Typology of federal and state policies designed to promote college enrollment” in Journal of Higher Education (2008).
  • Patricia Steele
    College Board
    PATRICIA STEELE is a research and policy consultant in Washington, D.C. Her work focuses on a variety of topics related to postsecondary opportunity, including student financial aid, college prices, college access, student persistence, and federal and state education policy. For the last four years, she has coproduced the Trends in Higher Education series, which includes Trends in College Pricing, Trends in Student Aid, and Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society. Most recently, she coedited a volume on the effectiveness of student financial aid policies that was sponsored by Lumina Foundation for Education.
 
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