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How reflective writing and a nudge from an app increased college prospects for low-income students

  • Innovation and Research
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)

Each year, thousands of qualified, low-income students in the United States don’t apply for college. The application process itself, plus applying for and securing financial aid, can be daunting.

It’s a problem that Pitt Learning Research and Development Center Research Associate Omid Fotuhi is working to understand and fix.

Some barriers are psychological, he noted: Prospective students may worry about belonging and performing well in college, as well as the cost. Behavioral hurdles, on the other hand, might be bureaucratic barriers including navigating the financial aid process or taking the SAT and picking a college.

In a paper out earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Fotuhi and colleagues from California State University and Stanford University designed and studied psychological and behavioral interventions meant to overcome these application barriers for high school students.

The team used two types of interventions on a senior high school class in Northern California. The first, a psychological approach using self-affirmation, asked participants to complete a brief reflective writing activity in which they identified self-defining values and then reflected on their importance. The second, a behavioral approach, had participants use a mobile app that reminded them of key deadlines in the college and financial aid application processes such as filling out their FAFSA.

“In this novel intervention that combines the best known tools from social psychology and behavioral economics, we demonstrate how motivation can be sparked through a tailored psychological intervention, and how that motivation is then actualized through clear channels of behavioral nudges,” said Fotuhi. 

The researchers found that students who used the mobile app in combination with self-affirmation made further progress along the college admission pipeline than students who did not. The combined intervention resulted in significantly higher numbers of students who completed all stages of the college admissions process, and consequently were also more likely to matriculate in college one year after the intervention.

This novel intervention nudges students to take relevant actions, at the right time,” Fotuhi said.

In other words, psychological interventions are effective at igniting motivation — but only if they are paired with a behavioral intervention that helps to channel that motivation

The researchers hope that future interventions could apply these positive psychological and behavioral approaches on a larger scale to help tear down barriers to college access and facilitate the upward mobility of future generations of students.