Research Spotlight: How Burdensome Experiences with College Financial Aid Impact Civic Participation and Trust in Government

Key Questions

Bureaucratic rules that impose undue burden on citizens often result in marginalized citizens losing access to rights and benefits. In this project, we explore whether citizens have lower trust in government and civic engagement after losing access to a tuition-free college program.

  1. How do experiences of administrative burden influence beliefs about civic duty, trust in government, and the likelihood of applying for government programs in the future?
  2. How do emotional responses to administrative burden impact the likelihood of citizen participation?

Methods

We partnered with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to distribute a state-wide survey to current and former applicants of the Oklahoma’s Promise program—the state tuition-free college program for families making less than $50,000 a year. We chose this program because students face considerable difficulty complying with the stringent set of eligibility requirements—in fact only around one third of the income eligible students overcome the administrative hurdles needed to access the Oklahoma’s Promise program. The 2,150 respondents were asked whether they had lost access to the program, what emotions they experienced if they lost access, if they took action to dispute the administrative decision that denied them access, and their thoughts on civic duty, trust in government, and the likelihood of applying for other government programs in the future.

Key Findings

  1. Respondents were less likely to trust the government and apply for other public programs in the future if they lost access to the Oklahoma’s Promise program due to administrative burden.
  2. Trust in government and beliefs about civic duty declined the sharpest for people of color who were denied access to Oklahoma’s Promise.
  3. People of color who lost access to Oklahoma’s Promise were more likely to experience shame, which translated to lower likelihoods of pushing back against the government’s decision to deny them access.
  4. People who experienced anger when being denied access were more likely to push back against the government’s decision to deny them access.

Policy Implications

When deciding whether to adopt stringent requirements for citizens to access public programs, policymakers should consider the potential negative impacts on civic engagement. Given that people of color were the most impacted by administrative burden, these policies can contribute to inequality not only in program access but also in democratic outcomes and political efficacy (the belief that they can make a difference in politics). Together, these findings provide important insight into the potential unintended consequences of increasing bureaucratic requirements in tuition-free college—which is currently being debated in many states and cities—for the development of civic participation among disadvantaged youth.

Dr. Elizabeth Bell is an Assistant Professor at the FSU Department of Public Administration. You can learn more about Dr. Bell here.

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