Cash for College Applications

March 1, 2021

As part of the PIER Public Seminar, researcher Ben Castleman discusses how conditional cash transfers — and other nudges — can improve college-going behavior.

A recent study led by Ben Castleman, Ed.D.’13, founder and director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab and associate professor at the University of Virginia, offers new insight into the effectiveness of nudges — relatively low-cost interventions that alter behavior — to improve outcomes in the college application process. Castleman presented these findings that shed light on what kinds of behaviors are more susceptible to nudging, as well as the mechanisms by which nudges might work, at a recent PIER Public Seminar from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. 

“I’ve always been interested in lower intensity strategies given that they are less resource-intensive, but also potentially have a clearer path to scale,” said Castleman. As a researcher, he had initially focused on low-cost interventions like text message campaigns to help students stay in college or make informed decisions about post-secondary opportunities. Yet he found that while informational, text message nudges were effective on a local level, efforts to scale these nudges to a statewide or national initiative resulted in little to no impact.

These informational interventions, it seemed, were not enough to alter behavior on a large scale. Instead, Castleman and his team “tested directly whether we could incentivize students to apply to well-matched colleges and universities, and whether by expanding their choice set, that would lead students to choose for themselves to attend higher-quality institutions.”

Working with the college advising program, CollegePoint, Castleman provided a treatment group with a financial incentive, or conditional cash transfer (CCT), of up to $400 by applying to colleges that were matched to the student.

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