Working Paper: Nudging at a National Scale

Full Title: Nudging at a National Scale: Experimental Evidence from a FAFSA Completion Campaign

Full Abstract: Despite substantial and growing interest in behavioral science interventions in education, we currently lack evidence about whether nudge interventions that have generated positive impacts on postsecondary outcomes at a local level can be scaled—and can maintain efficacy—nationally. We also have little evidence about the specific mechanisms underlying the positive impacts of promising smaller-scale nudges. We investigate, through a randomized controlled trial, the impact of a national information-only financial aid nudge campaign that reached over 450,000 high school seniors who had registered with the Common Application, a national non-profit organization through which students can apply to multiple colleges and universities in one application. In this version of the paper we report on the impact of three different variations in nudge content—concretizing the financial benefits of FAFSA completion, positive trait activation, or providing concrete planning prompts—on students’ initial college enrollment outcomes. We find that providing students with concrete planning prompts about when and how to complete the FAFSA increased college enrollment by 1.1 percentage points overall, and by 1.7 percentage points for first-generation college students. Messages that take a traditional human capital investments approach of emphasizing the financial benefits associated with FAFSA completion do not appear to increase college enrollment. At a per-student cost of $0.50, the impact to cost ratio of this national nudge campaign exceeds that of other interventions to improve college enrollment among low-income and first-generation students.

EdPolicyWorks Working Paper Series No. 55. March 2017.