Revisting the FAFSA experiment

Read the full FAFSA study here.

Credits: Joshua Hoehne

“[…] we can be greatly affected by hassles such as an eight-page, 100 question form, even when the reward of several thousand dollars in financial aid make it clearly worthwhile.”

This is a classic example of Hassle Factors — filling out FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The usual argument for filling out FAFSA is the reward: “several thousand dollars in financial aid.” In other words, there is, supposedly, enough motivation to conduct the recommended behavior.

However, many students don’t fill out FAFSA at all. Why is that?

  • The process is too complicated and inconvenient.
  • The form is not visible enough.
  • It is unclear to students and families if they are eligible and how much aid they would actually receive.

Through the lens of B.J.Fogg’s behavioral model, the solution described in the study addressed all of the issues outlined above:

  • It increases students’ ability to complete the form by offering assistance from professionals.
  • It provides a timely prompt for students by approaching them when they are already filling out tax forms.
  • It brings students’ motivation to the surface by showing them the amount of financial aid they are eligible to receive and presenting the tuition prices of nearby colleges. Outside of the experiment, these students have limited access to the true cost of higher education and thus overestimate tuition prices by 3 times.

However, speaking of motivation, notice that in the study, “the participant was also offered $20 for their time.” This happened before they learned about specific numbers regarding financial aid and tuition prices. In other words, the study gave participants another motivation that had nothing to do with higher education and financial aid. This extrinsic motivation, namely the $20, happened to be much more immediate and tangible than however much aid they might receive (that is, if they applied to college).

Consequently, it is inconclusive whether the $20 or the streamlined assistance increased the number of financial aid applications. Yes, the results of the study are valid, but what’s inconclusive here is how those results happened. To reach the conclusion claimed in the study, the authors would need to conduct another experiment where one group did not receive any money for participating in the study.

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