When does financial aid nudging work for high school seniors?

Reminders and follow-up communications from school counselors improve FAFSA and college enrollment rates

The concept of nudging—or reminding students of tasks they should complete—has gotten a lot of attention over the past couple of years. Yet some are skeptical of the effectiveness of the approach, since studies have not been collectively conclusive about positive results. New research has found that nudging may be more effective when the communication comes from a familiar source.

How the financial aid nudge worked

In spring 2015, about 10,000 seniors in 39 Texas high schools across eight school districts received weekly text messages from their school counselors about financial aid paperwork. The communication emphasized the importance of completing financial aid applications, updated each student’s status in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process, and offered one-on-one assistance from school counselors.

When students replied to a text, they received direct guidance from their school counselor.

The result: nudged seniors were 17% more likely to complete the financial aid application process and 8% more likely to enroll in college directly after graduating than students who were not nudged. Results appear in the current issue of the American Educational Research Association’s peer-reviewed journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Studies of text nudges sent by organizations such as the Common Application and the College Board found no positive effect on the financial aid processes.

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“If the outreach is coming from an individual or organization with whom the student has no obvious relationship, it may be seen as less credible and end up being less effective in shaping student behaviors,” co-author Lindsay C. Page, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, said in an announcement about the study.

“Proactive text-message outreach, when combined with support from known and trusted sources, can be an inexpensive, efficient and effective tool to help ensure that more students and families are taking advantage of available financial resources,” said Page, who conducted the research with colleagues from the University of Virginia and Brown University.

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The research also found enrollment impact concentrated among students going to four-year colleges. Students who received the nudges were 20% more likely to enroll in four-year colleges and 9% less likely to enroll in two-year colleges. That may be because students who apply for financial aid in the spring may be less in need of a cheaper “backup” option for starting college, Page said.

As higher ed financial aid administrators know, filing the FAFSA as early as possible can positively impact aid award packages as well as give students and families time to provide income verification if asked.

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Actions for administrators

The study urges school district administrators to use student data, including FAFSA status information, to customize messages promoting positive behaviors.

Page hopes higher ed leaders will see the study as evidence that nudging can be effective in helping college students navigate administrative asks more successfully. Such tasks can include registering for courses, refiling the FAFSA, submitting housing paperwork and documenting vaccinations. “Institutions typically have good administrative records on whether and when students have completed such required tasks and can, therefore, identify students who are falling behind,” she told UB. “Institutions can then target these students for outreach, reminders and support.”

The full study can be found here.

Also read: Study co-authored by University of Pittsburgh’s Lindsay C. Page on how AI can support entering freshmen in completing matriculation-related tasks

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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