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Publication Date

April 2019


Julia Barnard, Jess Dorrance, Kate Sablosky Elengold, and David Ansong


MetLife Foundation

Federal higher education financial aid policies, which are supposed to serve as a crucial bulwark against the rising costs of higher education, often fundamentally misunderstand the family financial dynamics of low-income college-goers. We uncover enormous diversity in the flow of financial support between students and families that is not reflected in federal aid policy.

Between 2000 and 2016, average total tuition, fees, and room and board charges for undergraduate degree-granting institutions increased by 47 percent. As the cost of college increases, students and their families face tough decisions about how to pay for higher education. Drawing on 65 in-depth in-person interviews with individuals who attended a range of higher education institutions, we uncover an enormous diversity in the flow of support within families that is not reflected in federal financial aid policy.

Our research highlights the ways that the federal financial aid system misunderstands common family dynamics, circumstances, and realities. The level of support between students and their families is a significant and understudied factor that can have a dramatic effect on the students’ ability to succeed in higher education. Focusing primarily on financial support, our findings highlight three themes:

  1. Regular cross-generational transfers of money,
  2. The effect of unexpected family financial crises, and
  3. An unrealistic expectation concerning family financial contributions.

This research brief begins with a broad overview of the current framework for federal financial aid, focusing on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), a calculation used to determine the amount of federal financial aid a student receives. It then reviews some of the relevant research on college students and their families. Following this, it presents primary interview data to highlight the implications that a
wide variety of family arrangements can have on students at three points in time: during the application period, while pursuing a degree, and during the loan repayment period. We conclude with a discussion of the key policy implications of these findings.

Topics(s): Economic Mobility, Higher Education, Voices of Student Loan Borrowers