Panel Paper: Nudging at a National Scale: Experimental Evidence from FAFSA Completion Campaigns

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Governor's Square 11 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kelly Ochs Rosinger1, Kelli Bird2, Benjamin L. Castleman2, Jeffrey T. Denning3, Joshua Goodman4 and Cait Lamberton5, (1)Pennsylvania State University, (2)University of Virginia, (3)Brigham Young University, (4)Harvard University, (5)University of Pennsylvania

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

A large group of recent studies suggests that nudge campaigns sent to students at critical financial aid junctures are an effective low-cost way to increase FAFSA completion and/or college enrollment (e.g., Castleman and Page, 2015; ideas42, 2017; Page, Castleman, and Meyer, 2018). Most of these studies involve research partnerships with local organizations. However, we lack evidence about whether nudge interventions that have had positive impacts in local contexts can maintain efficacy at scale. Additionally, we know little about the specific mechanisms that explain their effectiveness.

We ran the largest FAFSA nudge campaign to date in order to contribute new evidence about (1) the efficacy of nudge campaigns implemented at state and national levels, and (2) whether particular mechanisms contribute to greater campaign efficacy. We designed two randomized controlled trials of national and state-level financial aid nudge campaigns that together reached over 800,000 high school and college students. The first targeted lower-income and first-generation high school seniors who had registered with the Common Application, a national portal through which students can apply to multiple colleges in one application. Treated students received messages encouraging them to complete FAFSA early to maximize financial aid. We varied messages along multiple dimensions: behavioral framing; delivery channel (mail, e-mail, text); offer of one-on-one advising; and social nudges to encourage peers to complete FAFSA.

The second targeted students in a large state who had applied to college through a state-sponsored college application portal. Treated students received text messages informing them of changes in federal financial aid policy and encouraging them to complete FAFSA early. These messages also varied along multiple dimensions, including their timing and use of infographics to increase visual salience.

We found no impacts on financial aid receipt or college enrollment overall or for particular student subgroups. We additionally found no evidence that different approaches to message framing, delivery, timing, or access to one-on-one advising affected campaign efficacy. One mechanism we cannot rule out is making one-on-one advising available to students. The confidence intervals for these results include impacts of a similar magnitude (2-3 pp) to those found in similar, smaller-scale interventions.

One possible explanation for our generally null findings in light of past successes of similar, smaller-scale campaigns is that the strength of the messaging may erode when students have a less clear, direct connection with the partner organization. Our results suggest a more effective path to scale may depend on increasing the number of local institutions implementing nudge campaigns or using advances in data science and technology to develop more targeted, personalized nudges.