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Behaviorally-Informed Messaging for Federal Student Aid: An Interview with Leah Lozier

In this column, Leah Lozier, Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, describes how HUD, the Department of Education, and the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team are using behaviorally-informed messages to increase completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid among students with housing vouchers.

Image of a multi-story, brick building featuring a clock tower on an educational campus.

We’ve heard there is a plan underway to encourage HUD-assisted residents to apply for federal student aid for college. Who is involved? What is the project?

The players involved are HUD, the Department of Education— particularly their Federal Student Aid office— and the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST). We’re using behaviorally-informed messages, which capitalize on insights from the social and behavioral sciences, to increase completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) among students with housing vouchers.

The initiative is a light-touch, low-cost, randomized controlled trial. We’re sending out nine different messages to 45,000 kids: six letters, three of which include a paper version of the FAFSA and a stamped envelope to return it; and three postcards with infographics about applying. Sending out different versions of our messages will allow us to find out if certain elements of the message are more effective than others. Everything is set to be mailed the middle of March. Then we are using back-end administrative data through a data match between HUD and the Department of Education to measure the aggregate FAFSA completion rates between the groups that receive different types of letters.

It’s important to note this is really just a pilot effort to learn whether messaging like this might work. It will help inform subsequent research efforts in which we will be coordinating with interested PHA executive directors.

What’s the goal of the project?

We are trying to send basic information about what the FAFSA is and provide clear action steps to help streamline the FAFSA application process. We are using these behaviorally-informed messages to reach youth for two reasons: one, to break down some of the barriers to FAFSA completion; and two, to use insights from the behavioral sciences on how people read and respond to information to make more informed decisions. Current FAFSA completion rates are pretty low for low-income youth, and a lot of these individuals could benefit from federal student aid in higher education for anything from a four-year college to trade schools or associate degrees.

And what sort of insights do you all think about when you are designing these messages?

There are a lot of things we know about how people read information, and we’ve designed our message with those insights in mind. First, people often don't read past the first page, so we've kept all of the information on one page. Second, people look at things on a page in a predictable way: readers often look at the top of the page first and then at the bottom where the post-script is located. So we've put important information in those two places. And then we have a break out box in the center of the document with our action items, which are our steps to basically making an account and filling out the FAFSA. In our messages, we are trying to pull readers’ attention to what they need to know: how to complete a FAFSA.

Infographic depicting a road marked with signs. The signs list the steps to take to fill out of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
An example of a postcard students will receive in the mail.

And so why does it make sense for HUD to work on this project?

HUD is increasingly thinking about housing as a platform to better serve the people we house. HUD programs house a lot of kids and promoting education is a big priority for the assistant secretary of PD&R and HUD in general.

And so how does it help if more people apply for federal student aid? Could you explain a little bit more about what the problem is?

College, or any kind of post-secondary school, can be expensive. Having insufficient funds to cover the cost of college, in and of itself, is a barrier to attending and completing school. So federal student aid unlocks that opportunity for a lot of kids that might not otherwise have it. And we know that educational attainment is tied with all other kinds of great outcomes, especially economic self-sufficiency. Not completing post-secondary education can have major downstream consequences. Therefore, education is a doorway, and having access to student aid can be one of the best ways to help students walk through that door.

Great, so what are some examples of other successful nudges that help you understand how this project might work?

The overarching idea of a nudge is just simplifying access to information that informs decision-making, so people can more easily make the decision they want to make. It's not trying to push people into something that we want them to do; it's making it easier for people to do things that they might want to do.

A good example is a previous study conducted by the SBST in collaboration with Department of Defense’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) to increase servicemember enrollment in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). They capitalized on one of the same behavioral insights we’re using in the FAFSA study: research has shown that clarifying and streamlining enrollment processes can promote participation in programs. Eight different behaviorally informed emails were sent to servicemembers not enrolled in TSP, and they found sixty-seven percent more servicemembers—4,930—enrolled in TSP as a result of being sent one of the emails compared to receiving no email at all.

How much of an impact do you expect this project to have?

The answer is that we don't know, which is why we are testing the project. Rather than just saying "We think these letters will work, so we are going to send them to kids," we are setting this up as a randomized controlled trial. That means we are sending different variations of letters to different kids, and we have a control group with which we can compare the results. So, in time, we will see how well this project works.

But given how many kids HUD serves, even a small, marginal increase in the amount of students that are completing FAFSA could translate into hundreds to thousands more applicants. That is, even if this project has a small effect in terms of percentages, it could have a really large impact in terms of reaching the people HUD serves and using housing as a platform.

For more information, contact Leah.M.Lozier@hud.gov.