March 7 ED Talk: "Customized Nudging to Improve FAFSA Completion and Income Verification"

Photo of Lindsay Page


March 7, 2017


2:30pm - 3:30pm


SZB 524


Lindsay Page is an assistant professor of education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work focuses on quantitative methods and their application to questions regarding the effectiveness of educational policies and programs across the pre-school to postsecondary spectrum. Much of her recent work has involved the implementation of large-scale randomized trials to investigate innovative strategies for improving students’ transition to and through postsecondary education. Lindsay holds an EdD in quantitative policy analysis in education as well as a master’s degree in statistics and a master’s degree in administration, planning, and social policy from Harvard University.

Abstract: For most students from low- or moderate-income families, successfully completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a crucial gateway on the path to college access. Yet, researchers have long recognized that the complexity of the FAFSA can serve as a barrier to students applying for — and in turn receiving — financial aid. We investigate the impact of a texting campaign specifically to address the informational and behavioral barriers associated with initial FAFSA filing. We advance beyond prior work by designing a texting system that leveraged regularly-updated administrative data on the status of students’ FAFSA submissions to provide students with personalized outreach and updates on their FAFSA completion status. Students were able to write back for one-on-one, text-based assistance. We implemented the intervention in two distinct locations. In partnership with a set of eight school districts in Texas that together serve over 17,000 high school seniors, we tested the impact of this intervention through a school-level randomized trial. In partnership with the state of Delaware, we offered the text-based outreach to all high school seniors in Delaware public high schools, and we tested the impact of this statewide effort using a quasi-experimental matching strategy. Evidence from both sites indicates that the text-based outreach serves to improve FAFSA filing outcomes. In Delaware, rates of FAFSA completion were improved overall. In Texas, students filed the FAFSA earlier as a result of the outreach. In Texas, where we are able to observe subsequent college enrollment, the outreach impacted immediate college matriculation by four percentage points. We consider two potential mechanisms beyond simply completing the FAFSA through which the intervention could have improved rates of college enrollment. First, as a result of earlier filing, students may have accessed more generous financial aid. Second, the messaging may have made more salient the income verification process for the sizeable share of filers selected for verification. Earlier filing also may have afforded these students more time to navigate the verification process. We provide evidence to support both of these potential channels.