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This Is Your Brain on Poverty: Breaking Down Barriers

A surprisingly small tweak to the college admissions process yields an impressive increase in the enrollment of low-income students.
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Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "This Is Your Brain on Poverty."

In a 2013 study, when low- and moderate-income families with children between the ages of 17 and 30 came to H&R Block to have their taxes done, a portion of the families were also offered the chance to have someone sit with them, on the spot, to fill out their application for federal student financial aid.

Importantly, they weren’t just told or shown how to do it: The advisor actually guided them through completion of the form. With this single interaction, often lasting less than 10 minutes, the rate of college enrollment for students already out of high school increased by an impressive 20 percent, and for graduating high school seniors an astonishing 30 percent.

Why did it work? Behavioral research shows that we’re all naturally wired to put off or avoid daunting, unfamiliar, or complicated tasks. That’s why we wait until the last minute to complete our taxes, and only read the fine print on our insurance policies when our basements are full of water.

Research also tells us that, despite our best intentions, even modest logistical obstacles can derail us from doing things we actually want to do: It might take us months to make a dentist appointment just because we keep forgetting to look up the number, and we might fail to donate blood if the clinic is several miles away.

“The reality is, people of all income levels need support to do all sorts of complicated tasks,” says Elizabeth Morgan, director of external relations at the National College Access Network in Washington, D.C. “Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a research-proven indicator on the pathway to college enrollment and success, and this study is a helpful proof point about the value of one-on-one assistance in completing it.”

By approaching the families in a place they already needed to go and having a trusted individual complete the entire financial aid form with them, researchers removed logistical obstacles, helped the students to overcome the natural inclination to avoid a daunting task, and opened up the prospects for college to a whole new swath of individuals — all in a fraction of an hour.