Financial aid
More high school students are using smartphones than ever before, but they're ignoring nudges about the college process, including completing their FAFSA form. Source: Drew Angerer/AFP

Getting American students to apply for financial aid has always been a quest riddled with obstacles. Completing the FAFSA form – FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid – could help many students access and succeed in higher education.

Between 35-50 percent of high school seniors in the largest school districts do not complete the FAFSA form prior to graduation. It’s a lost opportunity for those who could have received such funding but did not submit a FAFSA form.

The complex submission process currently repels many students from doing so. One potential solution,  new research has found, is to use more personalised messaging when nudging students in large-scale efforts. The study, Nudging at Scale: Experimental Evidence From FAFSA Completion Campaigns, was released this month by the National Bureau for Economic Research.

“While scaling interventions locally is a costlier and more labor-intensive approach to scale, by maintaining a stronger connection to students as recipients, the sustenance of positive impacts could justify greater costs,” the researchers wrote in their report.

Nudges refer to digital alerts that send information or connect students to resources to guide them through the college and financial aid process. Though effective when used with groups of hundreds or thousands of students, the same can’t be said when the numbers are scaled beyond that.

Researchers tested two distinct groups of students: high school seniors applying through the Common Application; and college students of all levels (incoming, applied but did not enroll, currently enrolled and dropouts) who applied within an undisclosed large state system.

Using the Common Application and the state system, standard text messages with federal financial aid information were sent for all 800,000 students in the study. “Experimental” text messages –  further communication, like emails, infographics, mailers and varied text message content tailored to students’ identities – were sent to about 700,000 students in total, roughly divided equally among the two systems.

“It didn’t seem to matter how we framed the message or how we sent the message; we weren’t finding differences between them,” said Kelly Rosinger, Assistant Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University and one of six researchers on the study.

FAFSA form

Some students are missing out on crucial financial aid. Source: Shutterstock

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Rosinger said:

“When we think about scaling up, working with national and state-level organizations, the messaging has to be more generic than the previous messaging had been.

“Common Application covers the nation, and students are somewhat familiar with it when applying to college…The students have a weaker connection to Common App.”

A study published earlier this year by the College Board found similar results. Researchers sought to find the impact of a large-scale nudging effort where students received additional encouragements, such as text message reminders or college application fee waivers on enrolment.

There were “no changes in college enrollment patterns” save for an “extremely small” improvement in college quality for African American and Hispanic students.

Speaking to Education Dive, Oded Gurantz, a co-author of the College Board study, said: “It may be that when you’re working with a really, really large group of students, there needs to be an additional layer of personalisation.”

NBER researchers pointed to advances in data science and technology to make large-scale nudges to increase the completion rate of FAFSA form. In addition to getting more local organisations involved with the nudges, “supplemental data could be leveraged to develop microtargeted nudges” as social marketing and data can be “leveraged to provide higher degrees of personalisation”.

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