Clear language helps students navigate financial aid, study finds

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A study released this month found that clearer language can make accessing financial aid easier and more accessible for high school students.

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Financial aid letters with simplified language and modified content can encourage high school students to complete a key step in the financial aid process, according to a study released this month from the California Policy Lab and The People Lab at UC Berkeley.

In the study, researchers worked with the California Student Aid Commission, or CSAC, to develop eligibility notification letters for Cal Grant, a state financial aid program. Researchers sent different letters to more than 250,000 high school students and studied the letters’ effect on how many students signed up for an account on the CSAC website, a critical step in receiving the grant.

“Simple changes to verbiage and message made a significant difference in the number of students who created Web Grants accounts, a key performance metric of CSAC,” said Patrick Perry, director of policy, research and data at CSAC, in an email.

The study found students who received letters with simplified language were 9% more likely to register for accounts than students who received an original version of the letter. Letters that also included a belonging message, which told each student they were “the kind of person who belongs in college,” had an 11% advantage over the original version.

CSAC also sent out letters detailing the net costs of different college options, in addition to using the simplified language and belonging message from the other letters. Students who received such letters were 4.6% more likely to create accounts than those who received letters with the simplified language only.

“The net cost letter also influenced students’ knowledge of college costs and their college choices: students who received it were 12% more likely to enroll at a community college,” said Sean Coffey, director of communications and outreach at the California Policy Lab, in an email.

Some of the letters’ effects were limited, however. Neither the belonging message nor a message that urged students to “(j)oin thousands of high school seniors who have claimed their Cal Grant” offered statistically significant increases in account registrations when compared to the letter with simplified language alone.

Cal Grant payouts were also not affected by any of the letters, suggesting that increases in account registration did not necessarily lead to increases in financial aid reception, according to the study. Still, a policy brief accompanying the study suggested that financial aid application simplification, assistance and cost transparency could be effective at increasing financial aid payouts.

“(We) recognize that encouraging registration is just one piece of a much larger effort to simplify, streamline and improve access to college financial aid,” said Elizabeth Linos, assistant professor in the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and co-author of the study, in an email.

In response to the study, CSAC has permanently implemented simplified language and a belonging message into its letters, but did not implement net cost figures, according to Tae Kang, CSAC deputy director.

According to John Douglass, professor in the campus Goldman School of Public Policy, solutions offered by the study are a good way to clarify the cost of college to lower- and middle-income families, who often overestimate the price of higher education.

Riya Master, ASUC external affairs vice president, also welcomed the changes proposed by the study authors. Making financial aid instructions clearer, Master said, is an especially important step in helping students navigate the process of possibly getting thousands of dollars for higher education.

“When you lack that type of guidance … we see students who would be eligible for financial aid, not knowing that they’re eligible, not knowing where the applications are, and then thereby being again systematically oppressed,” Master said.

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @GabeClasson.