Are ‘nudges’ enough to get high-achieving, low-income students to apply to more competitive colleges?

New research indicates that informational “nudges” alone do not meaningfully change enrollment patterns among low-income, high-achieving students, who tend to apply to less-competitive colleges with lower graduation rates and fewer resources, despite being good candidates for more-selective—and better-resourced—institutions, Inside Higher Ed reports.

New findings undermine promising 2015 research

Following up on a 2012 research finding that high-achieving, low-income students often don’t apply to the nation’s most-selective colleges because of concerns that they are unqualified or that the costs are too high, economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner in 2015 tested interventions to encourage these students to apply to colleges that match their academic abilities, according to Inside Higher Ed. They found that high-achieving, low-income students were 46 percent more likely to enroll at colleges that reflected their abilities when provided with:

  • personalized information about “net price” rather than sticker price;
  • information about graduation rates;
  • Information about educational resources available at a range of insitutitions; and
  • college application fee waivers.

‘More intensive’ interventions may be necessary

But last month, a new, much larger study involving 785,000 low- and middle-income students in the top 50 percent of the PSAT and SAT score distributions found “no changes in college enrollment patterns” from informational interventions, with the exception of an “extremely small” and inconsistent increase in the academic quality of colleges considered by some African American and Latinx students. Students involved in the study were provided with “easily digestible information on a varied set of academically strong colleges”; text message, mail, and email reminders; college application fee waivers; and free SAT scores sends, Inside Higher Ed reports.

The authors of the study conclude that “the type of information we provided may not have been sufficiently novel or compelling to change student behavior,” especially considering the “influence of neighborhood, family and peers in the college selection process.” College outreach that provides “a more intensive but human touch working directly with students” may be more effective in changing college application behaviors, they note.

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