Freshman Year Financial Aid Nudges

By Betsy Prueter

A recent paper from EdPolicy Works at The University of Virginia reports on the results of low-touch interventions to increase FAFSA renewal. Researchers sent college freshmen personalized text message reminders that provided information about FASFA filing deadlines and how to get help with re-filing and financial aid more generally. Not only was the intervention low-cost -estimated at $5 per student – it had a large impact on community college students. Community college students who received text message reminders were 12% more likely than students who did not receive this outreach to continue on to their sophomore year. The report argues that strategies such as this one, personalized text messages with useful and relevant information on financial aid, hold great promise for supporting an increasingly diverse population of students as they decide where/if to apply to college, file the FAFSA for the first time, and select courses after they enroll.

Among the paper’s others findings:

  • While much effort has been put into helping families initially complete their FAFSA, less has been done to ensure families re-file the FAFSA each year (required for students to maintain their federal financial aid).
    • Research demonstrates that nearly 20% of freshmen Pell Grant recipients in good standing do not successfully re-file their FAFSA, with rates particularly low among community college students and students enrolled in certificate programs.
    • Both of these findings point to FAFSA re-filing as an important gateway to persistence in college.
  • Community college students, in particular, have the potential to be impacted the most from this type of outreach as they are three times more likely to fail to refile their FAFSA than freshmen at four year institutions.
    • In addition, community college students usually get less individualized financial aid advising, are more likely to be first generation students, and typically work longer hours while enrolled in school.
  • Messages had no impact on freshmen at four-year institutions who traditionally have high persistence rates and high re-filing rate. -It is worth noting that the authors believe interventions of this type still hold potential for students at four-year colleges and universities, as participants in this study were all from Massachusetts institutions, who on average, have much higher retention rates than the national average.