Over 150,000 low- and moderate-income California high school graduates each year are eligible for Cal Grant entitlement awards, which can cover full tuition and most fees at any of the three public higher education segments in the state, or can make substantial contributions toward tuition at private colleges. Unfortunately, many eligible students don’t take up the awards
In collaboration with the California Policy Lab, we partnered with the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) to test whether simple, low-cost changes to letters notifying students of their eligibility for aid could impact students’ enrollment decisions and increase take-up of financial aid. Over the course of two academic years, we found that modifying the content and language of award eligibility notification letters successfully “nudged” students into completing a key step in the application process: registering for an online account with CSAC. Yet the modified letters had no impact on the eventual take-up of financial aid.
Our research suggests that improved communications have the potential to help students navigate the early steps of learning about and applying for college financial aid. However, more work is needed to understand whether they need to be combined with other changes, such as simplifying the application process and providing direct assistance to students, to meaningfully increase financial aid take-up and college-going rates.