New Report Questions Impact of Scaling FAFSA “Nudge” Campaigns

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As more states begin to mandate that high school students file the FAFSA in order to graduate, a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests that nudging students to apply for financial aid on a national and state-wide level does not increase college-going rates. 

Earlier this summer, Texas saturated the news cycle when it became the second state to enact a law requiring students to complete the FAFSA, after Louisiana approved a similar policy in 2015. Louisiana’s efforts have so far shown positive results—the state’s overall graduation rate increased by 9.1 percentage points since 2012, compared with the 4.6 percentage point growth nationally. While a spokesperson from the Louisiana Department of Education said that the state “cannot definitively say" the increases are a direct result of the policy, officials "are hopeful the policy has positively influenced college enrollment and will continue to do so."

However, the NBER report—produced through a collaboration of researchers at the University of Virginia, Harvard University, the University of Pittsburgh, and West Point—found that state-wide efforts that encourage students to file the FAFSA have no effect on enrollment. In an earlier version of this paper from 2017, the authors suggested that nudging campaigns do modestly increase enrollment, though they wrote in that report that they will be utilizing more data on college enrollment to inform future reports, such as this one released Monday. 

For this study, the authors partnered with both a national and state organization to send out FAFSA information to 800,000 high school and college students. The first experiment involved sending mail, emails, and texts to lower-income and first-generation high school students who registered with the Common Application, encouraging them to apply for financial aid. The second trial, dubbed the “Large State” trial, was targeted at students who applied to college using a state-sponsored portal, and sent text messages about changes to financial aid, such as the ability to apply for funds beginning in October using information from two years prior, otherwise known as prior-prior year (PPY)

The authors found that the positive results on enrollment that previous, smaller-scale studies reported from similar “nudge” campaigns were not duplicated when scaled to the state or national level. Specifically, the authors reported that across both trials, messages did not increase overall enrollment or enrollment by sector-type—except by 1.1 percentage points for two-year institutions in the "Large State" trial—despite the fact that 40% of students who received messages in the second trial responded to texts sent through the campaign.

"Despite substantial and growing interest in behavioral science interventions in education at various levels of government, we currently have little evidence about whether nudge interventions that have generated positive impacts on postsecondary outcomes at a local level can be scaled and maintain efficacy," the authors wrote. "... Our study contributes to a small body of recent research that demonstrates that larger-scale information and nudge interventions have little effect on students’ college or financial aid outcomes."

The authors hypothesized that their results contrasted with those from other studies because most prior studies partnered with school districts, non-profit organizations, and colleges at the local level—which have a better understanding of the needs of their students and communities—and therefore used more personalized messaging. They noted that "it seems like the relationship between the student and the source of the nudge matters."

"[I]f participants infer that an intervention is delivered broadly, the salience and value of the campaign for any one recipient may be diluted," they wrote. "In the context of our study, students presumably had a weaker connection to the Common Application and the Large State partner than they did to presumably smaller, community-based organizations that were the ostensible message sender in many prior interventions.... [T]he lack of a more direct relationship with the sender and the generic nature of outreach could both explain our lack of impacts."

The authors urged policymakers and researchers to partner with local organizations for nudging campaigns. While this may be costlier and more labor-intensive, the authors wrote that "by maintaining a stronger connection to students as recipients, the sustenance of positive impacts could justify greater cost."

NASFAA President Justin Draeger voiced support for more testing to help identify practices that ultimately lead to successful measurable results. 

“We need more information about nudge campaigns at a national and state level before we can measure their impacts on college enrollment,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “A very real takeaway of this type of work is the need for continuous consumer testing to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to successfully communicating with students in a way that leads to positive results.”


Publication Date: 8/20/2019

James C | 8/20/2019 8:54:13 AM

the civil libertarian in me has issues with forcing people to complete a government document that potentially dozens of folks will have access to view, especially if you have no intention of using any Title IV aid.

Dori B | 8/20/2019 8:22:52 AM

There should more to this effort than just increasing college enrollment numbers. I wonder if the number of enrolled students who receive financial aid increased based on these "nudge" campaigns. We certainly need to encourage all high school graduates to consider the options available to them, and completing the FAFSA provides information necessary to determine the affordability of choosing to pursue higher education. However, even when eligible for TIV grant aid, many students simply cannot afford to go on to college without also taking on loan debt and therefore make the decision not to attend. At the very least, if these campaigns result in more FAFSA completions, that's still a very good thing.

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