Panel Paper: Can Friendly Text Messages Help Parents Navigate a Complex Application Process for Early Education Programs? Experimental Evidence from New Orleans

Friday, November 9, 2018
Wilson B - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lindsay Bell Weixler1, Daphna Bassok2, Jon Valant3, Justin Brian Doromal2 and Alica Gerry1, (1)Tulane University, (2)University of Virginia, (3)Brookings Institution

Although public investment in early childhood education (ECE) has risen rapidly, and most young children now experience regular non-parental care, the process of finding and enrolling in ECE programs remains complex for many families. Applicants to publicly-funded programs typically confront a multi-step process—search, apply, verify eligibility, and enroll—that demands sustained attention in meeting several deadlines. Falling short on any step can mean losing a slot in a publicly-funded program. To reduce this complexity, Louisiana passed legislation requiring localities to centralize the enrollment processes of publicly-funded ECE programs. In New Orleans, families log into a portal with information about pre-k and Head Start programs and fill out a single application with rank-ordered choices. Parents then provide documents—in person—to demonstrate eligibility for their preferred programs. Though the centralized application should simplify the process for parents, the in-person verification step may create a practical barrier, particularly for low-income families. About 35% of 2016-17 New Orleans applicants did not complete verification, forfeiting their opportunity to receive a seat. We partnered with EnrollNOLA, the agency overseeing the process, to identify and address barriers to verification in New Orleans. Behavioral science research in education has shown the potential for personalized reminders (Castleman & Page, 2016; Dechausay & Anzelone, 2016) and supportive interactions (Bettinger et al., 2012; Castleman & Page, 2015) to help people complete complex tasks. With few exceptions, behavioral research in ECE has focused primarily on post-enrollment activities, such as engaging parents with their children’s learning (Mayer et al., 2015; York & Loeb, 2014), providing little guidance on whether light-touch interventions can help parents enroll in public ECE programs. We conducted a randomized field experiment to compare the effects of three outreach methods on families’ verification rates. Group 1 (n=1,312 parents), the control group, received EnrollNOLA’s typical communications: formal, weekly email reminders to verify their eligibility, text alerts for five weekend verification events, and one “robo-call” reminder. Group 2 (n=1,284) received the same communications plus weekly text messages, also formal in tone. Group 3 (n=1,310) received the same communications as Group 2, but with a different tone and style. Their messages were personalized, casual in tone, and encouraged two-way communication with a friendly staff member (e.g., “Hi, it’s Ashley… I want to make sure [Child] doesn’t lose her spot for next year! Text me if you’d like help finishing the OneApp!”). Preliminary results show that providing personalized reminders increased the likelihood of verifying by 10 percent (Group 3 vs. Group 1; p<.01), with differential effects across subgroups. Subsequent analyses will examine the effects on enrollment in public ECE programs. Just as the complexity of FAFSA poses a significant barrier to college-entry for low-income students (Bettinger et al., 2012), the complexity of enrollment and income verification processes for ECE creates a substantial burden for low-income parents. Our findings show that a simple, low-cost intervention can improve parents’ success in applying for public ECE programs. The results also have broader implications for how government agencies communicate with the public.