Panel Paper: Nudging at a National Scale: Experimental Evidence from a Fafsa Completion Campaign

Thursday, November 3, 2016 : 1:15 PM
Columbia 1 (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kelli Bird1, Benjamin L. Castleman1, Joshua Goodman2 and Cait Lamberton3, (1)University of Virginia, (2)Harvard University, (3)University of Pittsburgh

Historically, policy efforts to reduce disparities in college access have focused on increasing financial aid or improving academic readiness. More recently, however, researchers have investigated how informational and behavioral obstacles deter academically accomplished students from matriculating at institutions where they are positioned for success. There are various indicators that students—particularly those from low-income backgrounds—struggle with college and financial aid application processes. As many as half of low-income students do not apply to or attend selective institutions at which they appear to be admissible based on their academic record. And twenty - thirty percent of college-intending high school graduates do not successfully enroll in college in the year following high school graduation.

Encouragingly, interventions that help students navigate these complex processes can lead to meaningful increases in the share of students that access college. For instance, sending high-achieving, low-income high school seniors customized information about well-matched colleges increases the quality of institution students attend. Sending low-income high school graduates personalized text message reminders about important college tasks they need to complete increases college matriculation. Beyond the level of individual high schools or college access organizations, however, policymakers typically do not have a means of contacting students at a large scale to encourage them to apply for financial aid. 

The Common Application, a national non-profit organization that enables students to apply to multiple colleges and universities through one common interface, is uniquely positioned to provide hundreds of thousands of students with personalized information and encouragement about college affordability and financial aid. Between October 2015 and February 2016, we partnered with The Common Application to design and implement a national FAFSA completion campaign, in which we encouraged socioeconomically-disadvantaged high school seniors to consider financial aid when choosing where to apply to college and to complete the FAFSA before priority aid application deadlines. Our experimental sample was comprised of approximately 450,000 students who were either the first in their family to go to college or who indicated through a series of screening questions on the Common Application that they qualified for a financial need-based application fee waiver.

We randomly assigned students to various experimental conditions:

  • Content: We varied whether message content emphasized the financial benefits of filing the FAFSA, activated a positive social identity associated with FAFSA completion, or provided students with concrete planning prompts to complete the FAFSA
  • Delivery: We varied whether students received text message, email, and/or postal outreach
  • Assistance: We varied whether students had the opportunity to write back and connect one-on-one with a financial aid advisor
  • Social influence: We varied whether we nudged students to encourage a classmate to complete the FAFSA.

Our data consist of student-level demographic and academic information provided by students through their college applications; student-level data on students’ application patterns; FAFSA completion data from the United States Department of Education, and college enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Our APPAM presentation will focus on the impact of the intervention on students’ college and financial aid application outcomes.