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To get students on financial aid, tell them they belong in college

Preliminary findings of behavioral science research could increase Cal Grant

a stock image of a grad cap with money

Telling low-income California high school students that they “belong” in college makes them more more likely to apply for the financial aid needed to attend in the first place, according to new research by the California Policy Lab, a public policy research partnership between UC Berkeley and UCLA. 

The results of the pilot project, announced Thursday, showed that changes to a letter sent to 130,000 high schoolers telling them they “belong in college” made them almost 14 percent more likely to apply for state financial aid. Many students avoid going to college because they don’t realize they’re eligible for government financial aid or find the process of applying for aid too cumbersome. 

“Small fixes can dramatically improve a program’s success,” said Evan White, executive director of the California Policy Lab at Berkeley. “Thanks to a simple, no-cost letter redesign informed by behavioral science, student Cal Grant use could potentially increase by millions of dollars. That’s a lot of new students now able to attend college and improve their career options.”

State financial aid executives also said they were pleased by the preliminary results. A final report will be completed this winter.

“We’re excited by this outcome,” said Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission. “We are already looking at how to apply what we learned this year to future communications with students.”

Read more about the California Policy Lab study