Using Smart Little Data to Help Students with Financial Aid

I’m pretty sure Bryan Alexander’s Paying the Price reading group has finished, but I wanted to share one last idea inspired by the last bit of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s book.  In Chapter 10, Dr. Goldrick-Rab lays out a number of ways we could help make the financial aid system work better (or, arguably at all) for students, including the idea that states and and public colleges (although there’s an argument to be made for all colleges to participate) layout the real cost of attendance for students over their four years to help them better plan.  I think that’s a great idea, but I feel like maybe it doesn’t go far enough.  Or more accurately, I think there’s a companion to this that could help students even more.

I’m not a financial aid expert, but my sense is that financial aid is complicated.  Since normally that which you don’t understand will seem simple, financial aid must be really complicated.  What a student is eligible for, when, for how long, and under what circumstances is very likely a morass of overlapping rules that seem to be ever changing.  I think this is an instance though, where a little data and a great deal of programming could help.  For as complicated as the financial aid rules are, they are still rules.  While it is likely there are some edge cases where different interpretations may happen, I’m going to start with the premise that a vast majority of the rules are knowable, quantifiable, and fixed (at least within a given set of parameters).  If all this is true, then we should be able to create a system that will take a set of inputs and output information for the student on their financial aid situation.

Creating a Financial Aid Report Sheet

In the old tradition of Apple marketing, I’m going to suggest a good, better, and best system.


The system will take as input a set of information about a student (whatever is required by each different kind of financial aid), their aid history, some assumptions about the relative stability of their family financial situation, and information from the colleges on the four year real cost of attendance.  I think most of this is likely sitting in college ERP systems somewhere already, as our systems are able to calculate current aid for students.  With all that the system would output for the student a sheet of their total aid right now and how it will look over their four years (or more).


The system would allow the student to make changes to year over year assumptions.  They could change, for instance, the number of credits they take in year three, or adjust their family income, or even change their GPA and see what the does long term to their aid.


The system is run independently of a college or university.  The student creates an account on a site and, via personal APIs is able to pull the needed information from their current institution and then see this analysis.  In the interest of privacy, the data is never stored.  Once the student logs out, the data disappears (the only thing we might store is which schools they’ve added to their query list so that they can quickly authorize the app again to pull their data).  Once the analysis is separated from the institution, a student could use it to see what would happen if they transferred to another institution.  At this point we’ve finally given the student real agency.

The Devil and the Details

What I’ve described above (even the just “good” system) is no small feat.  It will depend on exceptionally well articulated aid definitions that are updated very regularly, and it really should probably allow schools to input their own internal aid so that can be included.  The system will never be able to account for aid money that requires an application (unless the acceptance is automatic and based on data in some other system).  While the system can certainly handle easy things like inflationary increases and a student getting older, it won’t be able to guess that a student’s state legislature is going to eliminate (or expand) a vital aid package in year 3.  The best the system can do is alert the student to the change when it is updated.  It might even be interesting to have the system keep it’s original forecast and then plot it against reality each semester with a button that says “why are these different” that would explain how changes in eligibility, programs, or even the students own situation (grades, family income, etc.) changed the reality.

And the Call to Action

In less than 1000 words I’ve outlined something I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist (if it does, please provide a link in the comments) but should.  I’m the CIO at a very small school and don’t have the resources to take on a project like this myself, but I would love for some folks to stand up and be counted as interested in making something like this a reality.  Anyone game?

Student Loan spelled out in Scrabble pieces

“Student Loans” flickr photo by Got Credit shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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