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How can we help high school seniors navigate the college financial aid process?


Project Summary

As US college costs continue to rise, governments and institutions have quadrupled financial aid. Yet, the administrative process of receiving financial aid remains complex, raising costs for families and deterring students from enrolling. In two randomized experiments, we found that different outreach messages affect different barriers that students face to accessing financial aid and choosing colleges. Simplified messaging that emphasizes belonging in college helps students take more steps in the financial aid process. However, at the end of the day, sharing details about net costs of different colleges shifts choices further. This suggests that there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for connecting students with aid; instead, a more tailored approach may be necessary depending on the specific barriers students face.

Why is this issue important?

Cost is a key barrier to college access. Rapidly increasing college tuition affects both the decision to go to college in the first place and college selection. Policymakers have made significant investments in financial aid programs that aim to increase college access, but these programs fail to reach all students who could benefit from them. One possible reason for this is that the process of applying for and receiving financial aid is notoriously complex and difficult to navigate. Understanding how to support students in overcoming these hurdles is essential for ensuring that financial aid reaches all who can benefit.

What are we doing?

In collaboration with the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) and the California Policy Lab (CPL), we conducted two large-scale field experiments to test whether targeted outreach could increase registrations for the CalGrant (California’s college financial aid scholarships). In the first year of the study, we sent approximately 135,000 high-performing low-income high school seniors in California one of three informational letters that encouraged them to register for the state’s scholarship portal. One letter included status quo information and language; the second included simplified language; and the third included language that affirmed belonging. In the second year, with another group of approximately 135,000 high school seniors, we tested the combined effect of simplification and belonging affirmation language, the use of social norms language, and the impact of offering information about the net costs of colleges that might help students better understand the aid landscape.

What have we learned?

We find that simplifying communication increased registrations for the state scholarship portal by 9% and affirming belonging increased registrations by 11%. Yet, neither communication changed the likelihood that students go to college. Meanwhile, a simplified letter that affirms belonging while also offering cost information and comparisons across college options increased student enrollment in the lowest net cost option by 10%.

What comes next?

These findings can be used to inform educational outreach, although additional research is needed to better understand what communication strategies are most effective at reducing the many different types of barriers students face to accessing programs like financial aid. We are currently conducting similar evaluations in other contexts, such as college student take-up of the CalFresh program.


  • California Student Aid Commission
  • California Policy Lab


2017 - 2019


  • Field experiment
  • Administrative data analysis



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