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UW-Madison researchers launch landmark study of financial aid

December 9, 2008

A team of University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers is conducting a groundbreaking study of the long-term effects of financial aid on college students. Christopher Jencks, professor of social policy at Harvard University, calls the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study (WSLS) a “landmark study of financial aid.”

Participants include nearly 6,000 Wisconsin residents receiving a federal Pell grant while enrolled at each of the 42 public colleges statewide. Many are also grantees of the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars (FFWS), a foundation established by UW–Madison alumni John and Tashia Morgridge. FFWS uses random assignment to select recipients.

“It’s often very difficult to isolate effects of aid, since low-income students are at the greatest risk of not finishing college, and they get the most aid. By studying a program that chooses its recipients at random, we have the chance to learn exactly how and why financial aid matters,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology. “In these economic times, producing this kind of information is more essential than ever.”

The researchers expect to have preliminary results within the next year on how and why aid affects college coursework and persistence. But they have designed the WSLS to go even further, tracking participants for a decade or more. As a result, they will be able to examine effects on college completion, employment, earnings, and later outcomes. They are also conducting interviews with students to learn more about how money is affecting their college experiences.

“This study is very important because it will inform both potential private donors and government agencies about the role of financial assistance in college and how aid policies can be improved to expand degree completion,” says FFWS Executive Director Mary Gulbrandsen.

Goldrick-Rab is co-directing the study with Douglas N. Harris, an economist and assistant professor of educational policy studies. In addition, Christopher Taber, professor of economics, and Aaron Brower, vice provost for teaching and learning and professor of social work, are co-investigators.

The WSLS is a collaborative effort among the University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Technical College System, and the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board. The study is also supported by UW–Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and Institute for Research on Poverty.

Nearly $800,000 in financial support has been provided by three foundations, including the Spencer Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation.