Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Customized Nudging to Improve FAFSA Completion and Income Verification

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 8:50 AM
Flamingo (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lindsay C. Page, University of Pittsburgh and Benjamin L. Castleman, University of Virginia
For most students from low- or moderate-income families, successfully completing the FAFSA is a crucial gateway on the path to college access. Experimental research indicates that providing families with help completing the FAFSA leads to substantial increases in rates of FAFSA submission, college matriculation and persistence (Bettinger et al, 2012). Yet, many students and families lack access to this type of professional assistance with the FAFSA, and as a result, do not apply for financial aid (King, 2004; Kofoed, 2014). Of those who do submit a FAFSA, a substantial portion may not complete their applications due to missing simple steps like providing an electronic signature. Even among those who complete the FAFSA, many low-income students are required by the United States Department of Education to verify the income and asset information they provided on their application. This additional step in the financial aid process may delay or even prevent FAFSA filers from receiving award packages from the colleges and universities to which they are accepted. Students need to complete separate verification processes with each institution to which they have applied, and each institution has unique verification forms to complete. Given this complexity, FAFSA filing and income verification tasks pose substantial barriers to college access for low-income students (Castleman & Page, 2014). If students are hindered in completing these tasks, they may miss out on aid entirely; not receive aid until just weeks before the start of the fall semester; or face tuition bills that, without timely financial aid, exceed their families’ ability to shoulder college costs.

We report on a pair of interventions, one implemented in the context of a school-level randomized controlled trial in a set of school districts in Texas and the other implemented state-wide in Delaware that utilize automated, text-based outreach to (1) provide students and families with customized information about the importance of and their status on completing the FAFSA; (2) simplify information for students and families about how to complete the FAFSA; and (3) connect students and families to personalized counseling assistance to complete the FAFSA as well as the subsequent verification process, if selected. Messages were customized based on students’ individual FAFSA filing status as reported to partnering agencies by the US Department of Education. We report on experimental impacts of this outreach on FAFSA filing rates in Texas; descriptive evidence on improvements in filing rates from the Delaware; and factors that contribute to success implementation of these interventions at scale. While the interventions are still in process at the time of this submission, preliminary evidence points to positive impacts of this customized, text-based outreach and interaction in both intervention sites on timely FAFSA filing.