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Student Aid

Research conducted by professor Robert Kelchen helped prompt a federal policy change that will make applying for financial aid easier.

Each spring, high-school seniors must make a tough decision about where to go to college. They consult guidebooks, study online rankings, and crunch numbers to figure out what they can afford.

College is expensive, and Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education and a nationally recognized expert on financial aid and college rankings, wants to give stressed-out seniors information that will help make the decision easier.

“I’ve always been interested in the financing of higher education, how we pay for this tremendously expensive enterprise,” Kelchen says. One common financing option is federal aid, something he has researched intently in recent years.

Students who want financial aid must submit tax information so the government can assess their need. In the past, students submitted their own or their parents’ tax returns from the prior year. But that’s not ideal, Kelchen says. Though the aid application is available in January, few people have their prior year’s taxes completed so early. They might not finish their taxes completely until the April 15 deadline or even later, and by then most students have already received their acceptance letters. Some may have already made a decision.

Two years ago, Kelchen embarked on extensive research to examine how using older tax returns would affect aid recipients. “Robert was really instrumental in running the numbers and forecasting what this would look like for students,” says Megan McClean, managing director of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

He found that using two-year-old income data could potentially help the neediest students, particularly independent students with children.

Kelchen’s findings helped prompt a federal education policy change: Starting this year, students starting college in 2017 will be able to file their financial aid applications in October using tax return data from 2015.

“That three additional months may not sound like much,” Kelchen says. “But what it means is that students can have an idea of what they would qualify for before they even get acceptance letters from colleges. They can potentially use that information to shop around.”

“Robert’s work on these important programs really has the potential to influence at a federal level what happens with the student aid programs — how they might be tweaked or improved to be better for students and families,” McClean says. “The work is so important, not only for the campus that he’s at right now, but also nationally.”

Kelchen’s interest in education began early. His mother was a teacher, and he spent much of his childhood in classrooms. “She taught everything from kindergarten to eighth grade,” he says. But Kelchen always found himself drawn to higher education. As a sophomore in college, he joined student government and began auditing the student activity fee funds, which finance things like student organizations and intramural sports.

“My goal is to highlight a set of policies that make sense.”
That experience propelled Kelchen into a master’s degree in economics, and then a Ph.D. in educational policy studies. As part of his dissertation work, Kelchen assessed how college rankings would change if he incorporated cost-effectiveness. Most rankings don’t take into account the price that students pay. The ranking method used by U.S. News & World Report, for example, looks at the amount of money colleges raise per student. “It doesn’t matter if they use the money to benefit students, or burn the money on the quad,” Kelchen says.

In 2012, Washington Monthly, a D.C.-based magazine, approached Kelchen to ask if he would take over their college rankings and incorporate affordability. Kelchen jumped at the chance to apply his research. Some rankings focus on prestige or earnings. “We focus more on what colleges do for the public: Are they educating students well at reasonable prices? Are they producing cutting-edge research? And are students involved in various types of community and national service?” he says. The magazine’s “Best Bang for the Buck” list is now in its fourth year.

In some ways, Kelchen’s job is getting easier. Over the past couple of years, the Obama administration has been refining a tool aimed at providing consumers with information about college costs and value. The latest version of the federal College Scorecard, released in September 2015, includes a deluge of data. “What surprised us was the sheer number of elements that got released,” Kelchen says. “I’ll probably look to include some of these new metrics in the Washington Monthly rankings next year.”

Rankings are just one way of holding colleges accountable. Colleges also face increasing pressure from the federal government, states, accrediting bodies and the public. Kelchen hopes to examine some of these issues in his upcoming book on accountability in higher education. “My goal is to highlight a set of policies that make sense,” he says.

Cassandra Willyard is a freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin.

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