Type: Seminar

Nudging at a National Scale: Experimental Evidence from a FAFSA Completion Campaign


Benjamin Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy in the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Date & time

Mar 22, 2017, 8:30-10:00 am EDT


Open to PhD students and faculty engaged in causal inference in education research.

About CIERS:

The objective of the Causal Inference in Education Research Seminar (CIERS) is to engage students and faculty from across the university in conversations around education research using various research methodologies. This seminar provides a space for doctoral students and faculty from the School of Education, Ford School of Public Policy, and the Departments of Economics, Sociology, Statistics, and Political Science to discuss current research and receive feedback on works-in-progress. Discourse between these schools and departments creates a more complete community of education scholars, and provides a networking opportunity for students enrolled in a variety of academic programs who share common research interests. Open to PhD students and faculty engaged in causal inference in education research.


Despite substantial and growing interest in behavioral science interventions in education, we currently lack evidence about whether nudge interventions that have generated positive impacts on postsecondary outcomes at a local level can be scaled—and can maintain efficacy—nationally. We also have little evidence about the specific mechanisms underlying the positive impacts of promising smaller-scale nudges. We investigate, through a randomized controlled trial, the impact of a national information-only financial aid nudge campaign that reached over 450,000 high school seniors who had registered with the Common Application, a national non-profit organization through which students can apply to multiple colleges and universities in one application. In this version of the paper we report on the impact of three different variations in nudge content—concretizing the financial benefits of FAFSA completion, positive trait activation, or providing concrete planning prompts—on students’ initial college enrollment outcomes. We find that providing students with concrete planning prompts about when and how to complete the FAFSA increased college enrollment by 1.1 percentage points overall, and by 1.7 percentage points for first-generation college students. Messages that take a traditional human capital investments approach of emphasizing the financial benefits associated with FAFSA completion do not appear to increase college enrollment. At a per-student cost of $0.50, the impact to cost ratio of this national nudge campaign exceeds that of other interventions to improve college enrollment among low-income and first-generation students.

This is a joint paper with Joshua Goodman (Harvard University), Kelli Bird (University of Virginia), and Cait Lamberton (University of Pittsburgh).