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OPINION: Why do high school seniors leave so much federal money on the table?

Positive reinforcement, other strategies to make new FAFSA policy more effective

This year’s high school seniors can now use tax returns from the prior year and they have also had three extra months to apply for financial aid for college, thanks to recent changes in federal financial aid policy that have brought some additional time for what remains a complex and confusing application process for families.

This extra time for completing the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) carries the potential to generate substantial improvements in college attendance among lower-income families, especially given prior research that demonstrates a positive impact of completion on college enrollment and persistence.

But as of March 3, more than more than 50 percent of seniors hadn’t yet submitted the FAFSA. While the number of submissions is up – to 1.7 million students from 1.3 million by March 3, 2016 – priority deadlines for submission of the FAFSA forms that allow students to qualify for additional aid have passed in some states and other deadlines are approaching.

Given the positive impact that financial aid can have on college enrollment and degree completion, why would so many high school seniors leave money on the table?

Many schools and community organizations try to boost FAFSA completion rates by emphasizing the financial benefits of completing the FAFSA. The National College Access Network Form Your Future campaign makes this appeal: “Each year, more than $2 billion of financial aid goes unclaimed. To get this money for college, all students need to do is fill out one form: the FAFSA.”

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What if the key to increasing FAFSA completions isn’t selling students on the monetary gain of filing the FAFSA? What if it’s providing those students with more concrete guidance about when and how to actually complete the FAFSA? Or by reassuring talented students — particularly students who are the first in the family to go to college — that they are in fact college material?

Behavioral science research suggests that planning challenges and psychological barriers can deter people from following through on actions they otherwise intend to complete.

Our recently released study —with Kelli Bird at the University of Virginia, Joshua Goodman at Harvard and Cait Lamberton at the University of Pittsburgh — tested these strategies to increase FAFSA completion, evaluating a national financial aid nudge initiative that reached over 450,000 high school seniors through The Common Application.

The early findings show that a series of concrete planning prompts around the FAFSA can lead to modest but significant increases in college enrollment, with the most pronounced effects among first-generation students.

In the study, we sent students a series of emails, texts and postal mailers that encouraged them to complete the FAFSA as early as possible to maximize how much aid they received. These messages also included guidance about important steps in the process, ranging from setting up their Federal Student Aid ID to gathering documents, like income tax returns, that they would need to complete the FAFSA.

The most effective of these nudges encouraged students to identify a specific day and time when they could work on the FAFSA and to set a reminder in their phone for this date. Anyone who has worked with teenagers or who has teenage children of their own can probably relate to the intuition behind this nudge — even when adolescents intend to do something, they’re not always very good at making a plan or remembering to actually follow through.

By comparison, we found the nudges that emphasized the financial benefits of the FAFSA did not increase college enrollment. This suggests that many students already know that completing the FAFSA can help make these postsecondary aspirations more affordable; they just need that extra guidance about when and how to complete the FAFSA process.

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This new evidence has significant implications for how governments and large nonprofits can provide support to students whose families are less likely to have detailed information about or personal experience with the financial aid application process. This study not only shows that nudging can work at a national scale — but also provides a guidepost for the types of messages that are most likely to motivate students.

We now need to parlay the support behind planning prompts into policy, ensuring students and families have the actionable, easy-to-use tools they need to navigate the financial aid process and other complex stages they face on the road to their college degree.

We believe the greatest promise lies in cross-sector partnerships between educational organizations, researchers and creative designers, ensuring that we communicate with students through schools and nonprofits which which they already have  relationships.

We can also use these partnerships to leverage communications channels and design strategies that are most likely to resonate with young people.

We are encouraged to see related initiatives already underway at the state level in California, Texas and elsewhere, and with the leadership of key nonprofits like the National College Access Network.

Especially during a time of growing uncertainty about the federal government’s role in higher education, proactive, well-designed outreach from trusted organizations has the potential to help tens of thousands of hard-working, talented students —those who may otherwise struggle in the face of FAFSA complexity — to get financial aid and make it to college.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Benjamin Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy director of Nudge Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Jenny Rickard is the president and chief executive officer of The Common Application, a college admissions and financial aid resource hub accessed by nearly two million students and school counselors each year.

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Benjamin Castleman

Benjamin Castleman is assistant professor of education and public policy director of Nudge Solutions Lab at The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Edu See Archive

Jenny Rickard

Jenny Rickard is president and chief executive officer of The Common Application, a college admissions and financial aid resource hub accessed by nearly two million… See Archive

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