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Cash for College Applications

As part of the PIER Public Seminar, researcher Ben Castleman discusses how conditional cash transfers — and other nudges — can improve college-going behavior.

A recent study led by Ben Castleman, Ed.D.’13, founder and director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab and associate professor at the University of Virginia, offers new insight into the effectiveness of nudges — relatively low-cost interventions that alter behavior — to improve outcomes in the college application process. Castleman presented these findings that shed light on what kinds of behaviors are more susceptible to nudging, as well as the mechanisms by which nudges might work, at a recent PIER Public Seminar from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. 

“I’ve always been interested in lower intensity strategies given that they are less resource-intensive, but also potentially have a clearer path to scale,” said Castleman. As a researcher, he had initially focused on low-cost interventions like text message campaigns to help students stay in college or make informed decisions about post-secondary opportunities. Yet he found that while informational, text message nudges were effective on a local level, efforts to scale these nudges to a statewide or national initiative resulted in little to no impact.

These informational interventions, it seemed, were not enough to alter behavior on a large scale. Instead, Castleman and his team “tested directly whether we could incentivize students to apply to well-matched colleges and universities, and whether by expanding their choice set, that would lead students to choose for themselves to attend higher-quality institutions.”

Working with the college advising program, CollegePoint, Castleman provided a treatment group with a financial incentive, or conditional cash transfer (CCT), of up to $400 by applying to colleges that were matched to the student.

While financial incentives raise concerns about intrinsic motivation and paying students to do something that’s in their best interest, he pointed out that many organizations already invest a significant amount of money to influence college-going behavior, usually through financial aid or advising programs. From an equity perspective, affluent families also invest huge amounts of money behind their children’s college choices, paying for SAT courses or private college advisers.

“The consequences of whether and where students apply to college are profound,” said Castleman. “We might be less concerned about risks to intrinsic motivation [in this context].”

Results from Castleman’s most recent study suggested that the financial incentive nudge may have helped shift the mix of institutions students applied to toward institutions with higher graduation rates. However what Castleman found striking was that the nudge seemed to impact positively the students’ relationship with their CollegePoint adviser.

“Our exploratory impression is that in some way this incentive affected perhaps how students engaged with their adviser, their perception of advising, and that appears to have led to more sustained engagement with the adviser,” he said.


  • Using an intervention like a CCT at the right leverage point in the college process could be an efficient use of resources to improve college access and success. While more expensive than a text message campaign, its cost is still lower than that of an intensive advising program.
  • Further study is needed to understand whether this intervention is sustainable outside of an advising program for students who are already high achieving.
  • Researchers may also want to consider whether CCT’s like this one could be used at other points in the college process including reenrollment and course selection.