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IES Grant

Title: Measuring the Impact of State Financial Aid Programs
Center: NCER Year: 2023
Principal Investigator: French, Mark Awardee: Connecticut Office of Higher Education
Program: Using Longitudinal Data to Support State Education Policymaking      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (07/01/2023 – 06/30/2026) Award Amount: $835,011
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305S230014

Co-Principal Investigator: Chan, Monnica

Partner Institutions: Connecticut Department of Labor, State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, University of Massachusetts Boston

Purpose: In this project, designed by Connecticut's Office of Higher Education (OHE), the research team will assess the Roberta B. Willis Scholarship Program (RWSP), Connecticut's primary state-administered financial aid program. This project answers the need for evidence at the state level regarding Connecticut's investment in need-based and combined need-merit financial aid as means for increasing college attainment among low-income students at Connecticut's public colleges and universities. The project will answer the following research questions:

  • To what extent are Connecticut high school students completing the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA), which is required for RWSP receipt, and to what extent does FAFSA completion differ across high schools, districts, and key demographic groups?
  • To what extent are Connecticut high school students benefiting from RWSP support, and to what extent does RWSP support differ across high schools, districts, and key demographic groups?
  • What are the postsecondary and employment outcomes for RWSP recipients?
  • What is the impact of the RWSP on postsecondary attainment and employment outcomes for low-income students, relative to the prior state financial aid policy (the Governor's Scholarship Program)?

Project Activities: The research team will begin the project by linking OHE data on RWSP recipients to data on high school students from the Connecticut Department of Education and data on postsecondary attainment and labor market outcomes from Connecticut's state longitudinal data system, P20 WIN. The team will begin its analytic activities with a descriptive study that will assess FAFSA completion and receipt of RWSP aid for low-income students and for students in key subgroups, FAFSA completion and aid receipt across high schools, and FAFSA completion and aid receipt across colleges and universities.

Next, the team will conduct a quasi-experimental analysis to measure the effects of RWSP on postsecondary attainment and subsequent labor market outcomes. Throughout the project, the research team will communicate its findings to leadership within OHE, the partner institutions for this project, and the state legislature.

Products: The research team will generate data visualizations and data for posting on the P20 WIN website and Connecticut's open data portal ( to allow public access to RWSP trends and results from the project studies. The team will provide findings for the OHE annual System Trends report, which covers trends in higher education in Connecticut. They will also produce policy briefs, a web-posted report, and a submission to a peer-reviewed publication.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The setting includes high schools as well as public and independent colleges and universities located across the state of Connecticut.

Sample: The full sample for the project includes all students from the graduating classes of Connecticut high schools between 2011 and 2023 who completed a FAFSA. For research question 2, the sample will include cohorts from the graduating class of 2018, when the RWSP was initiated, to the class of 2023.

Key Issue, Program, or Policy: The Roberta B. Willis Scholarship Program (RWSP), administered by Connecticut's Office of Higher Education (OHE), is the state's primary state-administered financial aid program. RWSP, formerly the Governor's Scholarship Program, provides financial aid through two grant components to cover eligible educational costs for Connecticut residents enrolled at the state's public and independent institutions of higher education. The state legislature funds RWSP through its General Fund, with an overall appropriation amount set aside in the biennial budget. From this overall amount, OHE can use up to 30 percent of the funds for the RWSP need-merit scholarship component and institutions can use the remaining 70 percent to fund the RWSP need-based grant component. OHE administers the need-merit scholarship, which is available to Connecticut residents who attend an eligible in-state college or university, have an EFC no greater than $10,999 for a 4-year degree or $7,999 for a 2-year degree, and have been in the top 20 percentile of their high school class and/or have a minimum SAT score of 1200 or ACT score of 25. The need-based grant portion is allocated to eligible institutions based on their percentage of all eligible institutions' full-time equivalency of students with a federal expected family contribution (EFC) which was 200 percent or less of the maximum Pell Grant EFC for the prior year. This grant component is a decentralized program available to state residents who attend an eligible in-state college or university and have an EFC no greater than the allowable maximum EFC for the year (determined by OHE). Both components of the RWSP are last-dollar awards that cover up to and including the cost of tuition and fees plus a stipend for books and supplies. Pell grant aid must be credited first against these charges prior to determining if there is remaining need for an RWSP award.

Research Design and Methods: The study includes both descriptive and quasi-experimental analyses to answer the research questions. For the descriptive analysis, researchers will explore RWSP participation among FAFSA applicants and the postsecondary and employment outcomes of RWSP recipients and non-recipients. For the quasi-experimental analyses, researchers will first use a difference-in-differences (DiD) analysis to compare recipients over time and with similar students that were ineligible for the program but subject to similar trends in broader financial aid availability and college admissions. Additionally, the team will use a fuzzy multivariate frontier regression-discontinuity design (MFRDD) to estimate the causal effect of receiving an RWSP need-merit scholarship and an instrumental variables (IV) approach to estimate the causal effects of receiving an RWSP need-based grant on learner outcomes.

Comparison Condition: For the longitudinal DiD analysis, the comparison condition includes students similar to those receiving RWSP aid who received aid from the previous aid program and similar students who did not receive state aid during the previous period. For the causal MFRDD and IV analyses, the comparison condition includes students who did not receive aid but who were otherwise similar to students who did receive aid.

Key Measures: Outcome measures will include postsecondary credit accumulation and grades, postsecondary persistence, completion of a postsecondary certificate or degree, and employment status and average wages for graduates employed in Connecticut. Moderators will include high school characteristics, high school advisor experience and student-to-advisor ratio, college characteristics, and a set of student-level factors including financial need, high school achievement, gender, and race/ethnicity. 

Data Analytic Strategy: The research team will conduct a descriptive study to assess RWSP participation among FAFSA applicants. They will summarize the postsecondary and employment outcomes of RWSP recipients and non-recipients to better understand how RWSP recipients and non-recipients experience postsecondary education and labor market transitions in the state. The descriptive analysis will include simple differences and averages for applicant and recipient populations and t-tests for comparison of means. The DiD analysis will estimate pre- and post-policy differences in learner outcomes for students who attended college before and after the policy changes which occurred over 2 academic years (2015–16 and 2016–17). The fuzzy MFRDD will leverage variation in aid eligibility around the EFC and test score thresholds to compare students above and below the thresholds. The IV estimation will leverage institution-level differences in campus aid allocations understood to be independent of student characteristics, thus comparing RWSP-eligible and RWSP in-eligible students across institutions with high or low RWSP budgets.

State Decision Making: The findings will be useful to state administrators and legislators as they consider:

  • Future funding for the RWSP and relative appropriation levels for need and need-merit aid
  • Strategies for supporting high schools as they work with students to apply for financial aid
  • Future efforts to support postsecondary attainment and labor market success for low-income students in Connecticut
  • What Connecticut can do to retain the students who benefited from the RWSP
  • How to work to control the rising costs of education in the state  

Related IES Projects:  SLDS grants to Connecticut — Connecticut Department of Education Longitudinal Data System (R372A05149), Connecticut Department of Education Longitudinal Data System (R372A090037), Expanding SLDS Infrastructure with New Data Sources to Enhance Equity (R372A200008)