Nudges, College Enrollment, and College Persistence: Evidence from a Statewide Experiment in Michigan

May 2018
Joshua Hyman

I conduct a statewide experiment in Michigan with nearly 50,000 high-achieving high school seniors. Treated students are mailed a letter encouraging them to consider college and providing them with the web address of a college information website. I find that very high-achieving, poor and minority students are the most likely to navigate to the website. Small changes to letter content have dramatic effects on take-up. For example, highlighting college affordability induces 18 percent more students to the website than highlighting college choice, and 37 percent more than highlighting how to apply to college. Poor students who are mailed the letter experience a 1.4 percentage point increase in the probability that they enroll in college, driven by increases at four- year institutions. Unfortunately, these students tend not to persist through college, leading to an effect only half as large on the probability of enrolling and persisting to the second year of college, and a near zero impact on enrolling and persisting to the third year. These findings highlight the importance of supporting marginal college enrollees through college, and, for researchers, the necessity of examining persistence when evaluating college-going interventions.

Thank you to Venessa Keesler at the Michigan Department of Education for her partnership and support on this project. Thanks to John Bound, Eric Brunner, Thomas Downes, Susan Dynarski, Brian Jacob, Jeffrey Smith, Kevin Stange, Caroline Theoharides, and audience members at the University of Michigan, University of Connecticut, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Association for Education Finance and Policy, and Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management for helpful comments. I am grateful for research assistance from Diego Briones, Melissa Helburg, and Dana Sherry. Thanks to the Spencer Foundation for funding this project through grant 201400120, and to the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education for providing support through Grant R305E100008 to the University of Michigan. Thanks to my partners at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI). This research used data structured and maintained by the Michigan Consortium for Education Research (MCER). MCER data are modified for analysis purposes using rules governed by MCER and are not identical to those data collected and maintained by MDE and CEPI. Results, information, opinions, and any errors are my own and are not endorsed by or reflect the views or positions of MDE or CEPI.