Nudging proves difficult to scale up

Small-scale trials of “nudge” approaches, where, for example, students are encouraged via a series of text messages to apply for financial support for college, have shown positive results. These trials have involved a few thousand students, but could the approach be scaled up to state or national level?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports the results of two large randomised controlled trials that collectively reached over 800,000 students in the US. Kelli A. Bird and colleagues tested the impact of a national and state-level campaign to encourage students (average age 18.6 years) to apply for financial aid for college, with multiple treatment arms to investigate different potential mechanisms and approaches.

The trials found no impacts on financial aid receipt or college enrollment overall or for any student subgroups. There was no evidence that different approaches to message framing, delivery, or timing, or offers of one-on-one advice, affected the efficacy of any of the campaigns.

The researchers suggest three reasons why the scaled-up approach may not have been effective:

  • Most previous studies involved a local partner with closer connections to and knowledge of the students. Local partners may know something important about their students and students may react differently to messages from organisations in their communities.
  • A global scale-up results in messaging content that is more generic and less personalised to students.
  • The students in this study may have had better information about the financial support available to them than previous cohorts, so the intervention made less impact.

Source: Nudging at Scale: Experimental Evidence from FAFSA Completion Campaigns (August 2019) NBER Working Paper No. 26158

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