Simplifying Tax Incentives and Aid for College: Progress and Prospects

Susan Dynarki, Judith Scott-Clayton

“Simplifying Tax Incentives and Aid for College: Progress and Prospects.” 2013. Tax Policy and the Economy. Co-authors: Judith Scott-Clayton and Mark Wiederspan.

Abstract

The application for federal student aid is longer than the tax returns filled out by the majority of US households. Research suggests that complexity in the aid process undermines its effectiveness in inducing more students into college. In 2008, an article in this journal showed that most of the data items in the aid application did not affect the distribution of aid, and that the much shorter set of variables available in IRS data could be used to closely replicate the existing distribution of aid. This added momentum to a period of discussion and activity around simplification in Congress and the US Department of Education. In this article, we provide a five-year retrospective of what's changed in the aid application process, what hasn't, and the possibilities for future reform. While there has been some streamlining in the process of applying for aid, it has fallen far short of its goals. Two dozen questions were removed from the aid application and a dozen added, reducing the number of questions from 127 to 116. Funding for college has also been complicated by the growth of a parallel system for aid: the tax system. A massive expansion in federal tax incentives for college, in particular the American Opportunity Tax Credit, has led to millions of households completing paperwork for both the IRS and the US Department of Education in order to qualify for college funding.

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