- Giving high school students more information about the college application process largely yields no changes in which type of postsecondary institution they enroll, according to a large-scale study funded by the College Board.
- In the trial, the College Board encouraged 785,000 low- and middle-income students in the top half of the PSAT and SAT distributions to have a "broad application portfolio." Some students also received nudges in the form of text message reminders and fee waivers for college applications.
- The effort did not change students' enrollment patterns, except for an "extremely small" bump in college quality for Hispanic and African American students. The trial did, however, lead students to send more SAT scores to higher- and lower-quality colleges.
The trial was meant to determine whether a large-scale nudging effort could alleviate the issue of undermatching, in which high-achieving but low-income students forgo applying to more competitive schools even though they're qualified to attend.
Previous research showed promise for at-scale nudging. In a 2013 study, researchers Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner found that low-income students who scored in the top 10% of the SAT or ACT would apply and be admitted to more selective schools if they received application fee waivers and personalized information about the application process.
However, the College Board noted key differences between its trial and the Hoxby-Turner study. For one, the 2013 study was based on about 18,000 high school students, while the newer trial included 785,000 students. "It may be that when you're working with a really, really large group of students, there needs to be an additional layer of personalization," said Oded Gurantz, one of the College Board study's co-authors.
Additionally, the College Board study was not limited to students above the 90th SAT percentile. "If you're in the top 10%, your confidence for shifting to a more selective school may be higher" than those who are closer to the "middle of the pack," Gurantz added.
The study's authors offered several reasons why large-scale nudging didn't have the desired impact on college choice. For example, nudges tend to have a bigger impact when they are accompanied by "human assistance" or include a "transparent offer of full tuition," the authors write. The College Board's interventions generally didn't come with that type of additional support.
Additionally, students may place more weight on information from a college or counseling center, rather than an organization like the College Board. Gurantz said large-scale efforts to change college-going behavior may not be the most effective because organizations that can operate at-scale often aren't the ones that have the closest connections with students.
Iris Palmer, a senior advisor at bipartisan think tank New America, said the results may mean "students need to be connected to an institution for nudging to work effectively," though she noted that has not yet been studied.
"Hearing from a college you're enrolled in," she added, "is different than hearing from an organization you have a very tangential connection to."