Study: FAFSA 'Nudges' Are Cheap, And They Work

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Deliberately planned “nudges” that encourage students to apply for financial aid can have a noticeable impact on college enrollment, according to a new working paper, which examined the impact of these prompts on a national scale for the first time.

The working paper – a collaboration between researchers at the University of Virginia, Harvard University, the University of Pittsburgh, and West Point – examined data from a national financial aid nudge campaign through the Common Application, which reached 450,000 high school seniors, and found that providing students with prompts about how and when to complete the FAFSA resulted in a 1.1 percentage point increase in college enrollment overall, and a 1.7 percentage point increase for first-generation college students. Additionally, the initiative resulted in a cost of just 50 cents per student.

“Even with various efforts to increase FAFSA completion rates over the last several years, hundreds of thousands of students nationwide who would be eligible for financial aid do not apply for it,” said Ben Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, in a statement. “Our study shows that nudges on how and when to complete the FAFSA can generate positive increases in enrollment at a national scale.”

One cohort of students – those who registered with the Common Application by October 2015 – received two emails from the Common Application in the fall, and a six-week messaging campaign that started in early January 2016. The other cohort of students – those who registered between October and December 2015 – only received the six-week campaign messages. The researchers varied the messages they sent to students by the “behavioral frame” through which they attempted to influence decisions, the delivery channel (mail, email, and/or text message), and whether the students were offered one-on-one counseling to complete the FAFSA. They also tested the impact of three variations in the nudging: “concretizing the financial benefits of FAFSA completion, positive trait activation, or providing concrete planning prompts.”

Overall they found that giving students concrete planning prompts resulted in “modest but significant” increases in enrollment. The nudging campaign did not, however, appear to have an impact on college application behavior, the paper said.

“Our paper demonstrates that informational nudges implemented at a large scale … can generate meaningful improvements in college enrollment, but that the framing of these nudges may matter considerably,” the paper said. “The modest, significant impacts of the planning condition build on a strong body of literature in economics and psychology which finds that providing people with concrete planning prompts helps them follow through on their intentions. In the context of FAFSA, this suggests that some students recognize the benefits of FAFSA filing, but need additional planning guidance for when and how to complete.”


Publication Date: 3/23/2017

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