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"Prior-prior year" was one of the major student aid reforms of the Obama administration. To encourage students to apply for financial aid earlier, the rules were changed so that applicants could use the previous year's income data instead of waiting to file federal taxes and calculate the current year's income. The idea behind "prior-prior year" is that most families that are poor don't suddenly become wealthy, or even middle class, in a short period of time. Not many win the lottery (literally or figuratively), so the odds are overwhelming that someone who was eligible for aid a year ago is still eligible.

A similar idea is behind a new aid policy at Trinity College of Connecticut. Instead of requiring low-income students to apply for institutional aid year after year, the college will award institutional aid for four years based on a single application at the point a student first applies for admission, as long as the student is eligible for Pell Grants and has a family income of less than $60,000. Trinity can't exempt these students from the annual application for federal aid, but college officials hope that the new policy -- by removing some paperwork and uncertainty for the lowest-income students and families -- will encourage more of them to enroll.

Because Trinity meets the full need of admitted applicants, and total costs (tuition, room and board) are nearly $72,000, institutional aid is make-or-break in terms of allowing these Pell-eligible students to enroll. Typically colleges like Trinity that give out a lot of institutional aid base that assistance not only on the federal form, but on the CSS Profile, which going forward eligible Trinity students will need to complete just once.

"Our goal is to remove the anxiety, confusion and complexity from a process that discourages low-income students from applying to and persisting at institutions of higher education," says a Trinity explanation of the new policy. "Knowing how much college will cost over a four-year period will also allow students and families to make better decisions about enrollment and financial planning. The requirements to apply for financial aid continue to become more complex, and for the lowest income students, the process serves as a constant reminder that they are poor."

Many colleges tell students that if their financial circumstances don't change, and they reapply for aid, they will receive similar or identical packages each year. The shift at Trinity is making that a pledge based on a single year's form.

For Angel B. Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success, the concept about not reminding poor students that they are poor is central to his strategy. Two years ago, Trinity said that those from the first generation of their families to go to college would no longer need to pay an application fee. In the first year that the policy was fully in place, the college saw the percentage of new students from such families go from 8 percent to 12 percent.

Pérez grew up without much money in the South Bronx, and he said that colleges need to change a variety of practices to attract low-income students. He hopes to see similar gains for low-income students with the new policy on applications. Such steps are particularly important, he said, at colleges such as Trinity that had reputations for primarily educating students with wealth.

Michael Light, assistant vice president and director of financial aid at Trinity, said that three ideas led to the creation of the program.

One was "the undermatching problem at elite institutions where low-income students do not end up in the applicant pool due to a perception that they cannot afford the institution due to ‘sticker price’, despite elite institutions having some of the most generous aid programs." Light said that the Ivies and some other elite institutions have promoted "no loans" guarantees for those from certain family incomes.

Effectively these colleges are making a "price guarantee" by telling students they won't need to borrow, Light said. But he added that he "found the results to be mixed and thought a different strategy could work at Trinity." He said he wanted to focus on the "simplest affordability message we possibly could."

Second, he said that he wanted to learn from federal experiments. "The feds found that they were repeatedly making poor students prove they were poor again and again," Light said. "After the initial application review, we can say with high confidence that the student is from a low-income background and that is very unlikely to change. Why make them prove that every year when we already know the family circumstances?"

Third, he said that the idea came from his work, prior to Trinity, at the University of the Arts, in recruiting low-income students. "One challenge we ran into was that students with little in the way of resources were highly sensitive to small changes in financial aid," he said. "Students had a reasonable expectation that they could plan financially for their sophomore year based on their experiences in their first year. By providing this information up front, we can assist the student in planning a path to graduation from point of admission."

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said via email that he didn't know details of the Trinity plan but understood its motivations. "The Holy Grail of financial aid would be to give someone the total aid package for their entire program up front, including the cost and amount of loans they would need to take. Something akin to all of the other large purchases people make in their lives, like a home," Draeger said.

"The challenge is that there are too many variables that have made this difficult, ranging from state appropriations, federal funding, institutional endowments invested in sometimes volatile markets, student and family income fluctuations, and the biggest unknown, individual student enrollment patterns, program changes and intensity levels. Even if we can target this at a subset of students whose income we know is not going to fluctuate, that would be a step in the right direction."

At the same time, he said there are issues associated with any four-year pledge. "As long as we live in a world of scarce resources, we’re going to want to continue to target those funds to students who most need them, which will require some sort of income and wealth validation," he said. "The ultimate solution is to find a way to have that information shared between government agencies and institutions, without requiring students and families to do much of anything. In other words, lessen the burden and maintain integrity in the distribution system. In the meantime, these sorts of programs will be a much-needed reprieve for students and will teach us a lot about how to better help low-income students."

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