Earning a college degree has never been more important. People with a college education have on average substantially higher earnings, pay more taxes, live healthier lives, and have more stable marriages than those without one (Baum, May, & Payea, 2013; Oreopoulos & Salvanes, 2011). Yet these benefits accrue mainly to students who come from affluent families. Over half of students from the highest income quartile earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 25, compared with fewer than ten percent of students from the lowest income quartile (Bailey and Dynarski, 2012).
Inequalities in college access and success are particularly pronounced at the most selective colleges and universities in the country. Among the highest-achieving students, 78 percent from the top income quartile attend a selective institution, compared with only 34 percent of students from the lowest income quartile (Hoxby & Avery, 2012).
Disparities in college entry and completion by family income have prompted several decades of federal and state policy efforts to improve college affordability for students and their families. Many of these policies have focused on reducing the cost of college by expanding financial-aid programs, from grants and loans to tax credits and tax-preferred college savings programs (Deming & Dynarski, 2009).
Over the last decade, however, researchers and policy makers have increasingly noticed how complexities in the financial-aid application process deter college-ready students from qualifying for the aid for which they are eligible and, as a result, from enrolling or persisting in college.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—which students must complete to qualify for most federal, state, and institutional financial aid—is a gateway to college through which many students must pass, particularly those from low- to moderate-income households (King, 2004; Kofoed, 2013). Yet given the complexity of the application—which requires students and families to provide an array of information about their income, assets, and family composition—that gateway acts as a substantial barrier for many of those students (Bettinger et al., 2012; Dynarski & Scott-Clayton, 2006).
This recognition has catalyzed a variety of efforts to provide students with additional information about and assistance with the financial-aid process. These include the US Department of Education’s (UDOE’s) FAFSA Completion Pilot, which provides school districts with real-time information about individual students’ FAFSA completion status; the privately funded College Goal Sunday, which offers students across the country individualized assistance with FAFSA completion; and interventions to integrate the FAFSA application into the income-tax-return process (Bettinger et al., 2012).
FAFSA COMPLETION, ACCESS, AND PERSISTENCE
We wholeheartedly support these efforts to increase initial FAFSA completion. Nevertheless, there are many indications that these efforts have not gone far enough to ensure that students maximize the aid for which they qualify or maintain that aid once they have matriculated.
For instance, 45 percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA send it to just one college, even though more than half of these students applied to two or more institutions. As a result, they may not receive financial-aid packages from all the institutions that accept them, which limits their ability to comparison shop and identify the postsecondary options that are most affordable for their families.
Students may also submit the FAFSA after priority aid deadlines and miss state and/or institutional aid that they otherwise would have received (McKinney & Novak, 2014). March 1 is the priority filing deadline in many states, yet only 46 percent of seniors submit their FAFSAs by this date. Of even greater concern, only 33 percent of black students and 37 percent of low-SES students file their FAFSAs before the deadline.
Moreover, many among those low-income students who successfully complete the FAFSA before the deadline are also required by the USDOE to verify the income and asset information they provide on their application (Castleman & Page, 2014). This additional step may delay or even prevent them from receiving award packages from the colleges and universities that accept them. To further complicate matters, students need to complete a separate verification process with each institution to which they have applied, often with a unique set of verification forms required by each institution.
Given this complexity, tasks related to successfully completing the FAFSA and verifying income and assets if they are required to do so pose substantial barriers to college access for low-income students. If students are hindered in completing these tasks, they may miss out on aid entirely; not receive it until just weeks before the start of the fall semester; or face tuition bills that, without timely financial aid, exceed their families’ ability to shoulder college costs.
And while the primary policy focus of FAFSA-simplification efforts has been on first-time filers, recent research indicates that even first-year college students who have filed the FAFSA and received financial aid for their first year of college may struggle to refile the FAFSA at the end of their freshman year in order to maintain their aid (Bird and Castleman, 2014). Failure to renew the FAFSA is negatively associated with persisting in college or eventually earning a degree.
Nationally, 15 to 20 percent of freshman Pell Grant recipients in good academic standing do not successfully re-file their FAFSAs (Bird and Castleman, 2014). Approximately half of these students do return for sophomore year, despite no longer having the financial aid they received freshman year. But re-filing rates are particularly low among community college students and students enrolled in certificate programs.
These trends collectively indicate that additional interventions to provide students with information about the FAFSA and access to professional assistance with their financial-aid applications may help reduce socioeconomic inequalities in college entry and completion.
TEXT-MESSAGE NUDGES TO REDUCE SUMMER MELT
Much of our work over the last several years has used text messaging—currently students’ preferred mode of communication—as a way to provide them with personalized, college-related information; prompt them to complete financial-aid and other required tasks by important deadlines; and invite them to request one-on-one assistance from a counselor or advisor if they need help. Though each text is only 160 characters long, the messages operate through a variety of powerful behavioral channels to encourage students to take action on important college-related tasks.
First, the messages can alleviate the confusion students have about the tasks they are required to complete over the summer by delivering task-related information in consolidated and just-in-time bursts throughout the summer. Second, the messages can address students’ tendency to procrastinate in the face of onerous tasks by prompting them to focus on completing important ones (e.g., registering for orientation) in the moment. Finally, by inviting students to write back if they need assistance, the texts help minimize barriers to students’ accessing professional advising when they need help.
Our first foray into using text messaging to provide students with financial-aid-related information came in the context of an outreach campaign to reduce summer melt—the phenomenon in which college-intending high school graduates fail to matriculate in any postsecondary institution in the year after high school, often because of unanticipated and complex financial and procedural tasks that they are unable to complete during the summer (Castleman & Page, 2014).
Many of these tasks are sequential. So if students are late in completing the FAFSA or are flagged for verification but do not realize it, they may not receive their financial-aid award letters until well after high school graduation. Delays in receiving their award letters may lead them to postpone other important tasks, like registering for orientation or applying for housing. Consequently, they may be closed out of preferred courses or miss out on the chance to live on campus.
These challenges, in isolation or especially in concert, can derail even highly motivated students from following through on their postsecondary plans. In urban school districts across the country, one in five college-intending students fails to matriculate as a result of these complications. In some districts, as many as one in two succumb to summer melt (Castleman and Page, 2014).
Texting and Summer Melt
Encouragingly, a handful of personalized text message reminders about these financial and procedural tasks can increase the chances of students’ realizing their college aspirations.
Beginning in summer 2012, and in the two subsequent summers, we designed and implemented text-messaging campaigns to combat summer melt, in partnership with school districts, community-based organizations, and a state education agency. Most of the interventions were conducted as randomized controlled trials, which allowed us to generate rigorous evidence of the effect that text messaging can have on whether students enroll in college.
Across interventions, we’ve sent students (and in some cases, their parents) approximately ten personalized texts with information about tasks they need to complete at their intended institution. The texts remind students about discrete tasks such as registering for freshman orientation or taking academic placement tests.
The messages also encourage students to write back and request assistance with more complex tasks, such as completing the FAFSA, evaluating loan options, or choosing a tuition-payment option. As the example here illustrates, these messages are personalized to the student, providing not only college- and task-specific due dates but also Web links that allow students to complete the tasks in the moment, right from their smart phones (if they have them).
Sample Text Message (fields in bold customized to the recipient)
Message purpose: Remind students to register for courses
Hi Alex! Have you chosen your courses yet? Deadline is 8/15. Need to register? www.tinyurl.com/courses. Need help? Text back to talk w/ an MSU advisor.
We’ve sent these messages to tens of thousands of recipients over the last several summers, so delivering the texts from our iPhones was clearly not an option. We used instead two texting platforms, Signal Vine and One Logos. Both platforms have the capacity to take in data we provide on the student (name, cell number, where they intend to enroll) and college (all the task-specific information and web links), stitch this data together, and automate the distribution of personalized messages to thousands of recipients at a time.
Equally importantly, the platforms enable college advisors to have interactive, text-based exchanges with text recipients via online portals. Anytime a student or parent responds to a message, the response is routed to an online interface that looks just like Web-based email. Advisors can log in and see responses from recipients on their caseload, view prior exchanges they’ve had with the students, and send text-based responses.
We have observed that the vast majority of student responses come in the several minutes after an automated message is distributed. So we advise counselors to log on to the portal after each scheduled message is delivered.
These online portals facilitate rapid and personalized assistance for the student. As you can see in the interaction on the Signal Vine platform, a student got detailed feedback on a question nine minutes after the scheduled text was sent out.
These texting interventions have been inexpensive to operate. Message delivery and maintaining the online portal costs as little $2 per student for the summer, and hiring advisors to staff the portal can cost as little as an additional $5 per student. Yet this small investment has had a powerful effect, reminding students about required tasks, prompting them to complete these tasks in the moment, and encouraging them to request help from an advisor when they need assistance.
The following student response illustrates the type of engagement around financial aid and other topics that personalized texting campaigns can elicit:
SAMPLE INTERACTION ON THE SIGNAL VINE TEXT PORTAL
SAMPLE STUDENT RESPONSE TO A SUMMER-MELT TEXTING CAMPAIGN
The summer-melt texting campaigns have also consistently led to substantial increases in college-going in communities and among student sub-groups that typically lack access to professional college-planning supports. For instance, a texting intervention we conducted in Lawrence and Springfield, MA, increased enrollment by over ten percent. Another text campaign we conducted in Austin, TX, increased enrollment among low-income students by almost nine percent.
TEXT-MESSAGE NUDGES TO IMPROVE SOPHOMORE PERSISTENCE
The success of the summer-melt texting campaigns motivated us to explore how these techniques could be applied at other stages in students’ college trajectories to help them navigate the complexities of financial-aid and other processes once enrolled. The first extension we piloted was to use personalized text messaging to remind college freshman to refile their financial-aid forms.
As we note above, nearly one in five freshman Pell recipients in strong academic standing fail to refile the FAFSA, which decreases the probability of their earning a degree. Students may not know they need to refile; struggle to allocate time to complete the FAFSA while they are balancing a range of academic, extracurricular, social commitments; or not know where they can access financial-aid advising on campus or in the community if they encounter challenges with FAFSA refilling (Castleman, forthcoming; Castleman & Page, 2014b; Castleman, Schwartz, & Baum, forthcoming; Karlan et al., 2010; Ross et al., 2013).
Community college students are particularly likely to struggle with FAFSA refiling, given that advising resources at these colleges are often quite limited and students typically have to navigate complex bureaucracies in order to access individualized assistance (Scott-Clayton, forthcoming). Community college students also spend less time on campus, are more likely to be the first in their family to go to college, and are more likely to be balancing extensive work and family commitments (Bird & Castleman, 2014).
Starting in January 2013 and continuing through August of that same year, we conducted a text-messaging campaign with a sample of college freshmen in Massachusetts. These students had previously worked with and received text messages from uAspire, a Boston-based organization focused on college affordability.
We sent messages approximately every two weeks. The texts focused primarily on financial-aid and FAFSA renewal, but they also reminded students about related topics, such as the importance of maintaining satisfactory academic progress in order to continue to qualify for financial aid. In addition to encouraging students to seek help from uAspire, the messages provided students with contact information for the financial-aid offices at their institutions so they could seek assistance from campus-based resources as well.
As with the summer-melt texting campaign, this intervention cost very little—$5 per student—yet led to substantial enrollment increases among these community college students. Freshmen who were randomly assigned to receive the texts were almost 20 percent more likely to persist into the sophomore year of community college than their counterparts who did not receive the messages.
TEXT MESSAGES TO HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS
We are now in the process of designing a texting intervention to support high school seniors in completing their FAFSAs before priority filing deadlines and to guide them to verify their income information if the Department of Education requires them to do so. This intervention will capitalize on student-level FAFSA completion data available to our implementation partners, which provides educators with weekly updates of each student’s progress on the FAFSA, from initial submission to verification and successful completion.
While some schools have capitalized on this data access to reach out to students about FAFSA completion, many others have struggled to use the data, given limited staff capacity. With this challenge in mind, we are designing a system that school districts can use to provide students with personalized text reminders about their FAFSA-completion status.
For instance, once students have completed the FAFSA, they will receive messages that provide simplified guidance on interpreting their financial-aid award letters. Those who have yet to complete the FAFSA will receive additional reminders about the importance of FAFSA filing and crucial deadlines in the process.
As with our prior texting campaigns, we will encourage students to write back if they need assistance with any aspect of the financial-aid process. Counselors or other school-based staff will monitor this communication and will follow up to provide individualized assistance to students in navigating the FAFSA filing process.
GUIDELINES FOR SUCCESSFUL PERSONALIZED MESSAGING CAMPAIGNS
As our texting work has demonstrated, personalized messaging is a low-cost strategy to provide students with personalized information about college and financial aid and to connect them with college and financial advising when they need assistance. Interventions like the ones we have described can help students move beyond initial FAFSA submission and ensure that they receive and maintain all the financial aid for which they are eligible.
Like any other technological innovations, however, personalized text messaging campaigns are not a silver bullet. In our own work, texting has not led to enrollment increases in all settings. For instance, in Boston, MA, where there is already a high concentration of college-planning supports both during the school year and in the summer after high school, our messages did not increase the share of students who matriculated in college. And in our freshman year financial-aid texting campaign, the messages did not increase persistence among freshmen at four-year institutions, almost 90 percent of whom were already returning for sophomore year.
In order to ensure the success of texting campaigns, we recommend that educators and policymakers follow these guidelines:
- 1. Target students who are most likely to face financial and informational barriers in the college-admission and financial-aid processes. These might include those who are the first in their family to go to college or from economically disadvantaged families, as well as students who attend high schools or colleges with little college-advising capacity.
- 2. Minimize barriers to students’ opting into the campaign. While federal laws require that students provide active consent to receive messages, think creatively about how the collection of cell phone numbers and consents can be embedded in forms students are already filling out (e.g. college applications).
- 3. Invest substantial time in developing student-friendly and behaviorally informed message content, and get feedback on these messages from a wide range of constituents (including students) before launching the campaign.
- 4. Have an introductory message personalized to each student that clearly defines the sender and purpose of the campaign and provides the student with a way to confirm that the campaign is legitimate (e.g., a phone number to the district counseling office).
- 5. Identify staff who can respond to the messages recipients send. Interactive, two-way campaigns are likely to be far more effective than one-way campaigns.
- 6. Distribute messages on days and at times when students are likely to see them and when staff members are able to respond immediately to those students who text back.
With these guidelines in mind, personalized messaging can be a powerful solution for helping students navigate the complexity of the financial-aid system and both get access to and persist in college. Two particularly attractive features of the texting system we have developed are its sustainability and scalability.
The system is sustainable not only because of its low cost but also because the texting platform requires little technical expertise to operate. The information necessary to personalize the texting system can often be obtained from existing administrative data sources or can be fairly easily gathered from students. For instance, in our summer-melt texting work, our partner sites administered a short high school exit survey to collect students’ cell phone numbers and intended colleges, and we gathered all of the college- and task-specific information directly from college websites. The system is also very easy for staff to operate, given its similarity to web-based email.
The proof of the system’s sustainability is in the number of our partner sites that have continued to use automated and personalized text messaging to communicate with students after both our involvement and the grant funding we were able to provide had ended.
The other primary appeal of texting is its scalability. The only real barrier to scale is having an access point through which students’ numbers and consent to receive messages can be collected. Yet many organizations, from national non-profit organizations to state agencies and the federal government, have application processes already in place through which they can collect numbers.
For instance, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission collected numbers through the application for the West Virginia Promise Scholarship. We are currently working with another state that will collect cell phone numbers from all high school seniors and their parents during a state-sponsored college-application campaign in the fall. Particularly for financial aid-related texting, the USDOE is well-poised to adopt text messaging in its outreach to students, since it could collect students’ numbers and consent to receive messages through the FAFSA or students’ loan applications.
While we certainly advocate for expanding the use of text messaging to provide students and families with personalized information and access to assistance, we also encourage readers to think more broadly about how they can stay at the frontier of effective communication with students and parents. If students become as saturated with texts as they are with emails, they will undoubtedly shift to other communication platforms.
At the broadest level, our interventions have been successful because we meet students and families where they are—technologically speaking—and minimize barriers for them to complete tasks in the moment or to seek help from a college or financial aid advisor. Proactive and personalized communication and the opportunity for individualized support can go a long way towards supporting students to acquire and maintain the financial aid for which they are eligible, and therefore to pursue and succeed in higher education.
We are grateful to Kelli Bird for providing calculations about the relationship between the number of colleges to which students apply and the number of colleges to which they submit the FAFSA, as well as about the share of students who file the FAFSA by March 1st. These calculations come from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 restricted data. Tables available upon request.
To learn more about the FAFSA Completion Pilot see http://www.luminafoundation.org/tag/fafsa/.
To learn more about College Goal Sunday, see http://www.collegegoalsundayusa.org/Pages/default.aspx.
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Karlan, D., McConnell, M., Mullainathan, S., & Zinman, J. (2010). Getting to the top of mind: How reminders increase saving. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 16, 205. Cambridge, MA.
King, J.E. (2004). Missed opportunities: Students who do not apply for financial aid. American Council on Education Issue Brief.
Kofoed, M. S. (2013). To apply or not apply: FAFSA completion and financial aidgaps. Working paper.
Oreopoulos, P., & Salvanes, K.J. (2011). Priceless: The non-pecuniary benefits of schooling. Journal on Economic Perspectives, 25, 159–184.
Ross, R., White, S., Wright, J., & Knapp, L. (2013). Using behavioral economics for postsecondary success. New York, NY: ideas42.
Scott-Clayton, J. (forthcoming). The shapeless river: Does a lack of structure inhibit students’ progress community colleges? In Castleman, B.L., Schwartz, S., and Baum, S. (eds), Decision making for student success. New York, NY: Routledge Press.
Ben Castleman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.
Lindsay Page (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.