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

Friday, November 3, 2017
Haymarket (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kelly Bird, United States Military Academy at West Point, Benjamin L. Castleman, University of Virginia, Joshua Goodman, Harvard University and Cait Lamberton, University of Pittsburgh

Across a variety of policy domains, complicated application processes and complex eligibility information interfere with people accessing beneficial resources and programs (Bertrand, Mullainathan, and Shafir, 2004; Hastings and Weinstein, 2008; Madrian and Shea, 2001). In postsecondary education, researchers have long recognized that complexities associated with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can deter college-ready students from matriculating or succeeding in higher education (Dynarski and Scott-Clayton, 2006; King, 2004).

Behaviorally-informed messaging campaigns have become popular as a strategy to help people overcome such barriers (Bergman, 2013; Castleman, 2015; Kraft and Rogers, 2014: Loeb and York, 2015). Text and email messages sent to students at critical financial aid junctures can generate substantial improvements in college access and persistence at low cost (Castleman and Page, 2015; Castleman and Page, 2016; ideas42, 2016; Page, Castleman, and Meyer, 2016). Such research has, however, been implemented at a relatively small scale and important open questions remain about the mechanisms that drive these campaigns’ effects.

We contribute new evidence about both scalability of and mechanisms underlying informational campaigns’ efficacy by evaluating a randomized financial aid nudge initiative for 450,000 high school seniors registered with the Common Application, a national non-profit organization. Preliminary data suggests such nudges work at national scale to increase college enrollment, particularly among students whose parents did not attend college. Messages that encourage students to make a plan for completing the FAFSA appear more effective than messages about its financial value or identity priming. Though point estimates are small, the scope of the intervention implies it caused thousands of students to enroll in college. By fall 2017 we will be able to measure the impact of this intervention on college persistence and to more precisely evaluate which form of messaging was most effective.