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College: I'll Only Go If I Know (That I Can Afford It)

It's Financial Aid Week here at the NPR Ed Team (not really, but it sure feels like it). And we're kicking things off with a nostalgia nugget for all you children of the '80s.

The old G.I. Joe animated series famously ended with the phrase, "Now I know! And knowing is half the battle."

It's a catchy line and, it turns out, eerily relevant when it comes to high school seniors debating their college options.

Last week, researchers released a survey that found students were more likely to say they had applied to a particular college if they knew they were going to get enough financial aid to cover their costs.

In short: When students think they can afford college, they're more likely to go to college.

The survey is essentially a check-in with 18,000 high-achieving, low-income students from an earlier study by the same authors.

In that study, the researchers randomly divided students into two groups. The first group was given three interventions:

1) Information on the net cost of college (tuition minus estimated financial aid)

2) Reminders about college application deadlines

3) College application fee waivers

The control group got nothing.

In the end, students in the first group sent out more applications and enrolled in college at higher rates.

And this new survey tells us that those interventions worked, in part, because they changed students' understanding of what college costs.

Again, knowing is half the battle.

And that knowing begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the first step in the financial aid process.

Here's the problem: Each year, some 2 million students who would qualify for Federal Pell Grants don't fill out the form — or don't finish it.

This week we'll explore why — and what can be done about it.

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Owen Phillips