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Nudging Students to Success

It’s the small things that can make a sizable difference when it comes to college enrollment and persistence
photo of academic dean Bridget Terry Long

With a clear focus on how to mitigate some of the obstacles low-income students face in the areas of college enrollment and persistence, Academic Dean and Professor Bridget Terry Long highlighted “small things” that have the potential for big impact as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Bold Ideas & Critical Conversations event on September 19.

Kicking off her eight-minute lecture with some sobering statistics, Long showed a graph with a 34-year view of how high school students of different income levels fare in the college-going process. “The good news is those lines are sloping upwards, and as we’ve gone through time, more and more people are going to college, or at least getting into college,” said Long. “But another key observation is the gap between the high-income students and the low-income students is about as large in 2010 as it was in 1975.”

While affordability and academic preparation are both important issues, Long said these factors are compounded by the complexity of the processes involved, with parents and students faced with too little information, bad information, misperceptions about what aid is available, and often not getting the information they need when they need it. On the flip side, families can also be inundated with too much information, directed to websites that may have 300 suggestions on going to college, yet no indication of what’s most important.

Meanwhile, said Long, “the consequences of making a poor decision are huge. Higher education is expensive, it may be a little bit risky — especially when we start thinking about student debt — but it’s absolutely necessary for most students.”

In proposing some “small” solutions with the potential to have a significant impact, Long cited two of her research studies:

  1. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Experiment. Families that made less than $45,000 annually and had a family member between the ages of 15 and 30 were targeted. Those using H&R Block to file their taxes were asked if they were interested in learning more about higher education. A subset of this group were randomly assigned to the FAFSA treatment group where their tax data pre-populated their FAFSA forms, with additional help on the remaining pages provided to them (a process of approximately eight minutes). The results? “That eight minutes increased college enrollment by 7 percentage points,” said Long, “and when we continued to track them, it wasn’t just a matter of getting people into college … when we tracked them three years later they were 8 percentage points more likely to be enrolled for two consecutive years so they were persisting.”
  2. The Early College Planning initiative. With a look toward why families don’t save more money for college, Long has an ongoing project working with 1,000 families from the Boston Public Schools where three levels of support were provided: an informational workshop on saving for college by creating a 529 savings plan; a workshop plus help filling out forms to create a 529 college savings plan; and a workshop plus help with the 529 forms in addition to a $50 incentive payment to establish the savings account. Among the preliminary results? “Information alone was not enough, and, in fact, sitting down with them and helping them fill out the forms was not enough,” said Long. “But that $50 … we got about 36 percent of families to open the account…. After families opened the account, without any additional help from us … about one-third of them signed up for automatic monthly contributions.”

“Small things can make a big difference,” said Long. “We know this is true with barriers and we know that it’s true with interventions.” To that end, Long proposed two options for greater impact:

  • Option 1: Change the infrastructure to make the process easier (e.g. change the FAFSA form elements and submission process).
  • Option 2: Use personalized information to simplify the process and options presented (e.g., automatically complete the FAFSA using government program data). “We can use information that we have to better target students,” said Long, “so if you’re already on free or reduced-price lunch, you’re going to get the maximum financial aid. Why make you fill out two forms?”

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