How simplifying college funding applications for low-income students increased financial aid by 33%

Intervention · Education


In 2006, the Federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education concluded many students “don’t enter college because of inadequate information and rising costs, combined with a confusing financial aid system.” 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) awards college grants to students from families with a household income under $45,000, but not enough people are aware the program exists, let alone whether they could be eligible. Those that do take advantage of the FAFSA are faced with a challenging form that’s several times longer than most standard tax returns.

The intervention broke down a common barrier to low- and moderate-income families by simplifying the application, resulting in increased aid awarded and college enrollments. Operating on evidence of the impact of defaults on participation rates, the intervention reduced the number of decisions in the application process to increase FAFSA completion rates.


Effective interventions start with a nuanced understanding of how decisions are made. Our mission is to help large organizations be better and do better, using behavioral science.

Learn about what we do

Rating: 4/5 (direct positive impact on participants; lack of longer-term data, no sustainable application for intervention)

Simplifying the FAFSA application increases college enrollments and need-based funding
Control group
  • 40% of dependent students (live with family) submit FAFSA
  • 14% of independent adults submit FAFSA
  • 27% dependent students enroll in college
  • 29% dependent students awarded need-based financial aid
FAFSA treatment group: received assistance with FAFSA completion
  • 40% increase in FAFSA submissions from dependent students 
  • 200% increase in FAFSA submissions from independent adults
  • 29% increase in college enrollments among dependent students
  • 33% increase among dependent students awarded need-based financial aid
The Information-Only group: Made aware of aid eligibility and recommended to file the FAFSA independently No significant advantage over the control group.

Key Concepts

Sludgefriction built into a process or task that makes it more difficult to complete and discourages the subject from finishing — or even starting. A sludge is the opposite of a nudge: a subtle manipulation that can promote beneficial behaviors. 

DefaultA pre-set option that doesn’t require the participant to take any action or make a decision, but allows them to benefit from a presumed preference. 

Anchoring: The tendency for people to rely on information that comes to mind most readily when making decisions.

The Problem

Low visibility of funding

For students and young adults from lower-income families, college can appear out of reach. In 2002, a Harris Poll found almost two-thirds of soon-to-be college students and their families failed to name grants as a possible source of financial aid. It’s estimated that in 2000, 850,000 college students who would have been eligible for some type of financial aid didn’t complete the necessary forms. Over 10% of people eligible for a Pell Grant didn’t apply. That same year in California, as many as 19,000 students who would have qualified for a Cal Grant did not apply. That’s a lot of money left on the table, and a lot of opportunities missed.

FAFSA is difficult

The FAFSA form is a strong example of sludge. At eight pages long and over 100 questions, the 2008 FAFSA was four times longer than the simplest tax return. Three of these questions required applicants to fill in additional worksheets with nearly 40 questions each. More than half of students who submitted FAFSAs in 1999-2000 turned it in late, missing out on financial aid.

Enrollments before funding

FAFSAs must be submitted in January of the year of college attendance, which often means students need to apply to colleges without knowing whether they can afford to attend. Even after completing the FAFSA, the expected amount of aid isn’t clear to the applicant. Students who are already in college have to resubmit their FAFSA application each year to renew their financial aid, which can result in aid being lost. 

The misconception of college costs 

Due to news coverage of college costs reaching record levels at selective universities, many students and their families believe the cost of going to college to be a lot higher than it actually is. These reports created an anchor that led participants to overestimate college costs by 300%. 


Determining FAFSA eligibility 

After completing their taxes at an H&R Block office, people were screened for FAFSA eligibility via proprietary software. The two samples of interest were high school students and recent graduates dependent on their parents, and independent adults. Eligible participants were then randomly assigned to one of three groups: 

  • The FAFSA treatment group, which received support filling in the FAFSA form. 
  • The information group of eligible participants, encouraged to file the FAFSA by themselves. 
  • The control group, who were not given any instruction on the FAFSA.  

FAFSA simplification and assistance

For the FAFSA treatment group, the application was pre-populated with information from the family’s recent tax return. The group was then given a high level of support to complete the FAFSA. An H&R Block professional interviewed the participants to gather necessary information and offered to electronically submit their application to the Department of Education. The intervention cut through the sludge and reduced the FAFSA process to a few steps that could be completed in about 10 minutes. This support successfully increased need-based financial aid awarded and college enrollment.

The Information-Only group was told of their eligibility to apply. Both groups were also given additional information on several nearby public colleges. The control group did not learn of their financial aid eligibility or about the actual costs of tuition at nearby colleges, receiving only a basic brochure about the importance of going to college, and general information on costs and financial aid.

Results and Application

More funding leads to more college enrollments

Ensuring need-based funding reaches the people who benefit most makes college more equitable. With the FAFSA submitted, college enrollments were up 29% among dependent participants in the treatment group. The FAFSA treatment had the biggest impact on families with an income under $22,000. College enrollment rates among this subset of the treatment group were 4% compared to 2.9% of the control group. Individuals who were told their families were not expected to contribute to their college expenses were most influenced to go to college by this intervention. 

Financial Services Similar techniques of interviewing and form assistance could help new tax-payers file their taxes each year, to ensure they claim all possible benefits.
Public Policy Simplifying application processes for unemployment, disability, and other financial aid would ensure public funds make it to those who qualify. 
Insurance Making insurance easier to opt in could help reduce the risk of debt through unexpected costs. Creating a simpler process that avoids excessive coverage can make insurance more affordable and appealing to lower-income families.


  • Increased college enrollment and financial aid for low-income families.
  • A limited number of racial minorities mentioned. 
  • Unclear whether participants who successfully secured funding and enrolled in college would receive support completing FAFSA for subsequent years.

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
The intervention Increased college enrollment among low-income families and the amount of financial aid awarded to them. 
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
Room for improvement
The financial status and income of all participants is apparent to all involved in the study.
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
Insufficient Information
Unclear whether the financial aid awarded will cover the full cost of the participant’s tuition. Thus, financial aid could lapse in subsequent years if the FAFSA is submitted without further support.

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
Verbal and signed consent obtained from all participants.
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
The FAFSA treatment group was given the option to submit the application themselves or have H&R Block submit it for them. 
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
Not Applicable
No new choices were introduced. 

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
Insufficient Information
The intervention was tailored with the interests of the traditionally marginalized in mind, as it increased financial aid and college enrollment among students from low-income families. However, it is difficult to tell if these groups were consulted or their perspectives acknowledged. 

Are the participants diverse?
Room for Improvement
The intervention specifies the that white, Black, and Hispanic participants were involved, but no other minority groups are noted.
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
Participants from families with an income of around $22,000 were the most influenced to go to college.

Related TDL Content

How insurance form design increased accurate notetaking by 74%

The design of First Notice of Loss (FNOL) forms greatly influences how information is submitted to insurance companies. Incorrect or inadequate information leads to increased costs, wait times, and difficulties in receiving payouts. 

How default retirement funds enact long-lasting financial changes

We know nudges work, but how long for? The Swedish government put it to the test with their retirement fund, testing a default against a ‘do-it-yourself-nudge’, encouraging investors to determine their own portfolios.


Bettinger, E. P., Long, B. T., Oreopoulos, P., and Sanbonmatsu, L. (2009, September). The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment (NBER Working Paper No. 15361). Retrieved from:   

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?