Making crucial aid easier to access and use

Affordability and Financial Aid in College


  • One of the biggest considerations for many students making the complex decision whether (and where) to attend college is affordability.
  • Students leave nearly $4 billion in federal grants unused each year, struggle to navigate borrowing decisions, and underutilize other forms of aid as well.
  • Designing effective financial aid programs requires understanding and creatively addressing the barriers that impede access and utilization.

The challenge

College graduates earn almost twice as much as those with only a high school diploma over the course of their lifetime and are significantly more likely to be employed. But less than half of low-income high school seniors who intend to go to college end up enrolling. One of the biggest considerations for many students making the complex decision whether (and where) to attend college is affordability. To make college more affordable, American students can access federal financial aid and need-based grants. Yet, in recent years, students around the country have left nearly $4 billion in federal grants unused, simply because they did not apply for them.

Unfortunately, research has shown that students who don’t tap into financial aid opportunities are less likely to enroll in college and less likely to graduate. For those who successfully apply for student loans, it can be difficult to know how much to borrow: some students may borrow more than they need, making repayment more onerous later on, while others may not borrow enough, turning to more costly methods of paying for education or dropping out before graduation. And even once students have navigated the hassles involved in securing sufficient funding, they must continue to make smart decisions about how to manage their money throughout the year.

Our approach

For over a decade, ideas42’s Postsecondary Education team has been working to identify the behavioral barriers impeding student success, and to design and implement interventions to address those challenges. As part of this effort, we have used insights from behavioral science to research, design, implement, and test interventions aimed specifically at helping more students access needed financial aid, navigate borrowing decisions, and manage financial concerns as they complete their education.


For example, we found that timely reminders about critical, but often overlooked, deadlines for financial aid filing can lead to significant increases in the amount of aid students receive:


We discovered that changing the manner in which students are presented with loan offers can both increase borrowing and improve academic outcomes:


And we explored how targeted behavioral interventions can help students manage their financial health:


Paying for college is a big part of the student journey and a major concern for many students and their families. By using insights from behavioral science to understand what prevents students from accessing available financial resources, as well as the challenges in navigating complex financial decisions, we can help schools and policy makers better design aid programs that meet students needs. When we mitigate financial concerns, we create space for students to focus on being a student.

Follow @ideas42 on Twitter to learn more about our work. Contact us at with questions.