"Nudging" aspiring college graduates to enroll—and stay—in school

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This is a guest post from Ben Castleman, founder and director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab and Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia.

A talented high school student does not apply to college because she doesn’t perceive herself as “college material.”

Despite getting good grades in high school, a student struggles academically in college and drops out without ever working with a tutor or otherwise seeking help.

A student drops out of college after his first year because he loses access to financial aid after he doesn’t refile the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Although many high school students express interest in attending college, only a fraction of those students enroll, persist, and graduate. In this second blog in J-PAL’s three-part series on access to college, I share a new resource outlining cost-effective, evidence-based solutions that can help more students overcome barriers to successful college enrollment. (Read the first post in our series here.)

In the new hands-on guide “Nudges, Norms, and New Solutions,” the Nudge4 Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia and ideas42, a nonprofit specializing in applying behavioral science to address social problems,  introduce behavioral innovations that can help students navigate complex processes and succeed in college, often at low cost. The guide synthesizes research insights from behavioral science. Our longer report, Nudging for Success, offers actionable, evidence-based “nudge strategies” to help students get to and through college.

For example, how can we help students who struggle with the complex financial aid process? One effective strategy might be to offer hands-on assistance in filling out the FAFSA, in the context of providing another in-person service.

The guide highlights one particular case study where researchers partnered with H&R Block tax professionals to study whether integrating assistance on the FAFSA into tax preparation meetings could improve college outcomes for low-income students.

In H&R Block tax return meetings, young adults and their families were offered assistance in filling out the FAFSA in addition to regular tax preparation services. During the meeting, the tax professionals transferred information from existing tax returns into the FAFSA, helped filers gather additional necessary paperwork, and encouraged filers to submit their paperwork right away. This partnership streamlined the FAFSA submission process for those students and their families.  

The program substantially increased FAFSA submissions among all participants, especially for financially dependent high school students with no college experience. For high school students whose parents received FAFSA assistance, college enrollment rates and persistence increased by 8 percentage points.

Our guide distills more than a dozen key innovations like this for supporting students from late high school through college graduation. By simplifying and sharing evidence on program effectiveness, case studies, and key facts about program implementation, the guide can help practitioners explore, replicate, and adapt effective programs within their contexts.

To learn how to implement programs like these, read more case studies on how to increase college access and completion in “Nudges, Norms, and New Solutions.”  

To request advice on evidence-based techniques to improve student outcomes, check out the Nudge Hotline by visiting nudge4.ideas42.org or calling 434-233-0165.

In the first post in this blog series, we reviewed major challenges that aspiring students face and introduced findings from randomized evaluations that highlight evidence-based interventions to address these barriers. In part three of the series, still to come, two first-generation college students will share their own experiences navigating the college application process and how an evidence-based mentoring program helped them get to college.

Posted by Ben Castleman, Founder and Director, Nudge4 Solutions Lab; and Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy, University of Virginia