A new study, Nudging at a National Scale, reveals that providing students with concrete planning prompts to complete the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) can increase college enrollment by as much as two percentage points. Researchers at the University of Virginia, Harvard University, University of Pittsburgh, and West Point assessed the impact of a national financial aid nudge campaign that reached 450,000 high school seniors through the Common Application.
“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 Dr. Ben Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and one of the authors on the study. “Our study shows that nudges on how and when to complete FAFSA can generate positive increases in enrollment at a national scale.”
Researchers and policymakers have long recognized that the complex process associated with the FAFSA can deter low-income and first-generation students from enrolling or persisting in higher education. Small shifts in college-related costs, ranging from travel to a college entrance exam site or small but unanticipated fees, can affect whether these students complete important steps in the college enrollment process.
While recent research demonstrates at a local level that messages sent to students at critical junctures in the financial aid process can generate improvements in college enrollment, there hasn’t been evidence that these results strategies could translate on a national level. Unlike any previous study, Nudging at a National Scale also sought to determine the type of nudge that most effectively prompted students to complete their FAFSA form.
Overall, the study found that national nudge campaigns can generate meaningful improvements in college enrollment—but their framing matters considerably. Particularly for first-generation students, actionable prompts that encourage students to identify a specific day and time to work on the financial aid form resulted in increased college enrollment rates. And, at, a cost of just 50 cents per student, the impact to cost ratio is higher than many other rigorously evaluated initiatives to improve college going.
"We’re excited that this research shows that by sending simple, personalized planning prompts at critical times, we can have a real impact on college access,” said Jenny Rickard, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Common Application. “Given the power of the Common App platform, every year we’re able to reach more than one million students – one-third of whom are first-generation – to provide them with the tools they need to complete the FAFSA, enroll in college, and fulfill their aspirations.”
Over time, researchers will follow these students longitudinally to determine the nudge campaign’s effects on college persistence and report on the impacts of additional variations such as the method by which the nudges were delivered the impact of providing students with access to one-on- one advising, creating a more robust understanding of this intervention’s potential.
The paper, which can be read in its entirety, was authored by Kelli Bird, UVA and West Point; Ben Castleman, UVA; Josh Goodman, Harvard University; and Cait Lamberton, University of Pittsburgh.