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What Happens When Nudges Don’t Work?

"Nudges" are low-cost, low-touch interventions that encourage, but not require, people to take a particular action. Grounded in behavioral economics, they often take the form of messages delivered through texts or emails and have been successfully implemented to improve some K-12 outcomes, including in efforts to increase attendance. But several recent studies in higher education have found no evidence of success with nudges at scale:

College Applications

Six researchers from College Board and the University of Missouri analyzed the results of a randomized control trial the College Board performed with 785,000 low-and middle-income students in the top 50 percent of the PSAT and SAT distribution. In this trial, some students were sent text message reminders or college application fee waivers as additional encouragement to apply to college. The results, which are outlined in Realizing Your College Potential? Impacts of College Board’s RYCP Campaign on Postsecondary Enrollment, suggest there are no changes in college enrollment patterns with such nudges.

Completing the FAFSA

Another analysis focuses on scaled nudges for FAFSA, the complex federal form required for students seeking financial aid. The analysis relies on two randomized controlled trials with 800,000 students and multiple treatments. Researchers from the University of Virginia, Brigham Young University, Brandeis University, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State University find no evidence that different approaches to message framing, delivery, or timing, or access to one-on-one advising affected campaign efficacy. Their paper, Nudging At Scale: Experimental Evidence From FAFSA Completion Campaigns, explains that prior work, using local interventions, was more successful due to closer connections with and knowledge of students.

Academic Performance

A study performed by Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic looks at the effects of online and text-message interventions for students after they begin their college career. With a sample of 25,000 students across three different campuses, they find that none of these interventions significantly influenced academic outcomes. In The Remarkable Unresponsiveness of College Students to Nudging And What We Can Learn from It, they explain that more comprehensive programs may be more promising.