Rethinking College Choice in America

Since the early 1970s, the federal government has spent nearly $100 billion per year providing financial aid in an effort to induce more students to attain a college degree. But we still have little evidence that need-based financial aid affects students' college success. Students who receive financial aid use it in many settings and conditions, yet these are rarely documented or closely examined.

This is unfortunate since a better understanding of these factors, and their resulting outcomes, could help policymakers maximize aid's effectiveness. This study aims to expand our understanding of financial aid by more fully investigating how money matters during the college years. Another goal is to closely examine micro-level interactions between college students and key settings, utilizing both economic and developmental psychology perspectives.

This study will leverage the first-ever randomized controlled trial of financial aid to shed light on how students interpret the meaning of financial aid, how they make use of it, and whether and how it affects their college performance. That experiment, the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study (WSLS), involves about 3,600 college students, randomly assigns students at 4-year colleges $3,500 per year, and students at 2-year colleges $1,800 per year.

As co-director of the WSLS, Goldrick-Rab has interviewed the first cohort of participants. This study will open up and examine the 'black box' of college experience and specifically pinpoint the mechanisms underlying settings and educational outcomes.


Completed on June 30, 2016