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Offering a full suite of on- and off-campus services is critical to address the financial hardships of low-income students. However, these services can only be effective if the students who need them actually use them.
In a recent report, Nudging for Success: Using Behavioral Science to Improve the Postsecondary Student Journey, ideas42 identified how the inconveniences that low-income students experience while trying to obtain support can undermine their intentions and derail their actions. The report indicated that many low-income students lack the kinds of support systems that may be available to other students. 32 As a result, low-income students can become overwhelmed by choices, which may cause them to choose incorrectly or simply abandon the attempt to use supports. 33 The report identified three principles that postsecondary institutions can use to become more intentional in providing the infrastructure support needed to help low-income students succeed:
Hassle factors are the small things that take time or add complexity, thereby imposing “transaction costs” that impede students. For example, many financial support programs require students to make active decisions and follow a series of steps to benefit from them. Administrators often assume that students will carefully consider their options, analyze the details, and make decisions that maximize their well-being. However, hassles often cause frustration, which can trigger procrastination or other actions that undermine student completion. By addressing hassle factors – i.e., streamlining tasks, reducing complexity, and simplifying processes and service delivery – institutions can dramatically improve students’ use of such services.
At Arizona State University (ASU), ideas42 developed an intervention to encourage continuing students to resubmit the FAFSA. The intervention involved a series of emails to ease the process of resubmitting the FAFSA, and to encourage financial planning. As compared with students who received the university’s standard email, ASU students who received the redesigned email were nearly twice as likely to submit the FAFSA by the priority deadline—49 percent versus 29 percent. Additionally, those students were offered an average of $520 more in financial aid.
For low-income students, navigating college financing decisions can be challenging – even overwhelming, because there may be drastic consequences for acting incorrectly. There are ways to simplify students’ decision-making processes without reducing their options. “Bundling” services and the “opt-out” approach are two promising methods for improving the decision-making process for low-income students.
Bundling is the act of proactively providing two or more services, programs, or resources – either simultaneously or sequentially. To bundle effectively, an institution must ensure that students know which supports are included in the bundle, and that they understand how those supports can aid their success in college.
The Working Students Success Network (WSSN) is a good example of bundling. Based on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Working Families concept, WSSN works with nonprofits and community colleges to help students with issues related to education, employment, improved access to public benefits, financial coaching, and asset building. Research shows that community college students who received bundled services through WSSN had term-to-term retention rates that were 10 percent to 15 percent higher than those of similar non-participating students. Participants who received bundled services were three to four times more likely to achieve a major economic outcome such as earning a certificate or degree than those students whose services were not bundled. Additionally, WSSN students reported greater self-confidence and an improved ability to manage their debt and family expenses.
The “opt-out” approach is essentially a default model of providing services. In such a model, support services are automatically provided to a low-income student unless he or she actively chooses not to use them. Opt-out programs can increase students’ use of services. For example, LaGuardia Community College in New York City mines student FAFSA data by income level and household size, flagging those students who are below certain thresholds. When the flagged students appear at the financial aid office, they are automatically screened for public benefits through the college’s partnership with Single Stop. In a recent evaluation of the program, the opt-out model was identified as the most promising way to screen students who are mostly likely eligible for public benefits. 34
Institutions vary in how, when, and which services are communicated to students. For example, students may initially hear about many support services during the onboarding process (application, orientation, counseling appointment, student success course). “Word-of-mouth” has been identified as the primary mechanism for sharing information about emergency aid with students. 35 Administrators in a recent study of emergency aid acknowledged that students are often required to proactively inquire about the possibility of emergency aid, and that disparities may result. 36
Students who must manage scarce resources have less room for error. This makes each decision more consequential and taxing and can undermine students’ capacity for decision-making, action, and juggling information. 37By redesigning their messaging and outreach, postsecondary institutions can communicate the value and availability of key services and programs more effectively; clarify the processes for obtaining them; and remind students of critical timeframes and deadlines associated with them. Clear and timely communication about the availability of specific support services and how they can help can increase the use of services.
Reducing stigma is another way to ensure that support services are not just offered, but used. Montgomery County Community College in eastern Pennsylvania wanted to increase traffic to its food pantry, knowing that there were many students who could benefit from it. Initial flyers included basic information about the pantry (hours of operation, types of items, and location on campus), but did not generate much interest. Learning that there was a stigma associated with the food pantry, college personnel engaged students from the college to revise the messages. The new messages provided destigmatizing information such as: “Did you know that two out of every five of your classmates are already using the food pantry?” In doing so, the institution encouraged students to take advantage of a service to which they were entitled.