Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

IES is Investing in Research on Innovative Financial Aid Programs in Five States

State financial aid programs have the potential to substantially augment the support that students receive from the federal Pell Grant. Federal programs, most notably the Federal Pell Grant program, have historically played the lead role of providing a solid foundation of financial support to students, with states playing the supporting role of providing additional aid to students who meet specific eligibility requirements. In recent years, states have moved to innovate their financial aid programs in ways that have the potential to increase total aid packages, meet a wider range of needs, and serve a broader population of students. The effects of these recent innovations are mostly unknown yet of great interest to state legislators and policymakers. To address this issue, IES is funding a set of five research projects that assess the scope and effects of innovative financial aid programs in California, Connecticut, Michigan, Tennessee, and Washington state. This blog describes how the five projects are contributing to the evidence base.

State financial aid program eligibility rules differ in ways that can substantially alter total aid awards, the scope of the population that can be served, and the ways in which students can use aid funds to meet their various needs while enrolled in college. For example, one key policy attribute that affects the total aid award is whether awards are calculated independently of the Pell Grant­–as “first-dollar” awards that add to the Pell award if state eligibility requirements are met– or as “last-dollar” awards that supplement Pell awards conditional upon eligibility and appropriate-use requirements. Policies including an eligibility requirement for recent high school graduation within the state tend to limit aid access for older and returning students. In addition, financial need requirements can limit or broaden the pool of eligible recipients, depending on family income thresholds. Policies that require completion of the federal FAFSA Form without offering an alternative state application tend to close off access to aid for undocumented immigrants. Merit and high school GPA requirements can close off aid access to students who are otherwise ready for college. Moreover, appropriate-use requirements in some states limit aid usage to tuition and registration expenses while other states allow aid usage for living expenses such as housing and transportation.

Given these variations in program eligibility rules, state officials want to know if their aid programs are reaching targeted student groups, meeting their needs in ways that allow them to focus on their studies, and making a difference in their academic and subsequent labor market outcomes. In an effort to support decision making, IES is funding five projects that are each working closely with state officials to understand the features of their programs and conducting research to assess which students are accessing the programs, the extent of support provided by the programs, and their effects on enrollment in and progression through college. Below is the list of the IES-funded projects.

We are excited to fund these projects and look forward to the findings they will be sharing, starting in fall 2024.


This blog was written by James Benson (James.Benson@ed.gov), program officer in the Policy and Systems team at NCER.

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