- Access to virtual advising services did not increase college enrollment and acceptance rates of socioeconomically disadvantaged high school students, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.
- The researchers gave more than 6,500 California students access to one of two programs: one that alerted them to important college application deadlines and gave gift card rewards for completing key milestones and another that included those offerings plus virtual advising.
- Although students in both groups reported feeling more supported during the application process and were more likely to apply to a four-year institution than did those in the control group, the services did not significantly impact whether or where they went to college.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence that suggests low-cost, virtual interventions have a limited effect on college-going behavior.
Last summer, researchers found that nudges — digital alerts meant to influence behavior — sent to more than 800,000 students to help them complete FAFSA forms didn't affect their use of financial aid or college enrollment and persistence.
Those findings followed a similar large-scale study that used text messages and fee waivers to encourage nearly 800,000 high-achieving, low-income students to apply to more selective colleges. The effort did not change students' enrollment patterns, but Hispanic and African American students did see a small bump in college quality.
The new study of California high schoolers found similar results.
Hispanic students from Spanish-speaking households who had access to the services were more likely to feel supported during the application process and get accepted to schools in the University of California System, which tend to be more selective than other public colleges in the state.
That result, along with other recent studies, suggests that such campaigns can make a bigger impact by personalizing their messaging to specific student groups. In-person and more intensive supports could also help, the researchers wrote.
"Nudging is complicated," said Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst at think tank New America, in an interview with Education Dive. "To get a large impact, you really have to think about how to target things well, and you have to think about what you're saying and what your messages are to students."
It also may be important for students to be familiar with and trust the source of the nudges, she added.
However, there is still hope that relatively low-cost interventions can be effective, especially those that provide students with more information about their estimated cost of attendance, the researchers note. The University of Michigan, for example, was able to recruit more low-income students by sending a mailer notifying them that they qualified for four years of free tuition and fees.
Lowering some of the barriers to attendance, such as simplifying the financial aid application process, may also be key. To that end, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have put forward several bills meant to streamline the FAFSA.