There’s a lot to celebrate in the plan unveiled by the Biden Administration over the summer to relieve student debt. At over $1.6 trillion, federal student loans represent the single largest category of consumer debt in the United States outside of mortgages. The proposal would wipe away up $10,000 of debt for individuals making less than $125,000 a year, with twice as much relief for recipients of Pell Grants, who come from families that face the greatest hardship paying for college. And perhaps more significantly in the long run, the plan also caps monthly payments for income-driven repayment plans at half their former level, expanding a pathway to a debt-free future for many more borrowers.
But there’s another change to the way millions of students pay for college that rolled out this fall, and while it received much less fanfare, it could have a big impact on college access and affordability. Last month, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, saw a new wave of changes that, as part of a larger overhaul, will continue whittling the number of questions down from over a hundred to just a few dozen by this time next year. While it might not be the stuff of campaign promises, this simplification represents a kind of reform that is sorely needed in higher education: “de-sludging.”
In contrast to nudges, which help keep our behavior in line with our goals, the term sludge refers to hassles and barriers that hold us back from behaviors that are in our best interest. The old FAFSA, with its bevy of 108 questions, is a prime example of sludge—needless complexity that gets between students and their educational goals. This year’s reform will do away with outdated questions related to the military draft; questions that provide redundant information, like gender; and questions that ask for unnecessary and shaming details, like past misdemeanor drug offenses. These changes will reliably help low- and middle-income students pay for school by clearing the way to potentially thousands of dollars in subsidized loans and grants. The form’s simplification is by no means a silver bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction.
While it might not be the stuff of campaign promises, simplifying FAFSA represents a kind of reform that is sorely needed in higher education: “de-sludging.”
While we might like to think that the benefits of a college degree are so large that people will push through even the most cumbersome processes to obtain one, behavioral science has shed light on the power of seemingly small hassles to derail our goals, including enrolling and persisting in higher education. Just as colleges and universities should consider ways to support students with proactive programming and outreach, they need to closely examine opportunities to remove sludge to help more students earn degrees. Redundant fields on an enrollment form, needless sign-in requirements to access basic course materials, a complex and poorly formatted syllabus—these might not be the usual focus of work on student success, but addressing them can help students achieve their educational goals.
Leading a de-sludging drive will never be as sexy as deploying the latest technological tool or launching a new student engagement program, but it could be among the most impactful ways to help get students into college and keep them on track to graduate. Over the past decade, my team at the nonprofit behavioral design lab ideas42 has fielded dozens of interventions aimed at helping students complete degree or certificate programs. These interventions have ranged from simple text message reminders to make sure students take enough credits to graduate on time, to more intensive campaigns that boost first-year persistence by normalizing hardships and help-seeking. But wherever we’re ultimately able to nudge students, we also find corresponding solutions that involve streamlining, simplifying, eliminating, or otherwise de-sludging systems.
Financial aid is a great example of this dualism. We’ve now worked with schools to nudge thousands of students to resubmit the FAFSA by sending a series of timely reminders. This approach reliably boosts FAFSA renewal rates by a few percentage points at the schools where we’ve tested it, unlocking extra funds to help students pay for tuition, books, and housing. But if you were to ask me the best way to increase access to financial aid, it wouldn’t involve anything like these messages. It would instead involve further automating the FAFSA renewal process, or, better yet, eliminating it altogether for millions of students by letting them maintain their financial aid eligibility for multiple years with a single application.
Leading a de-sludging drive will never be as sexy as deploying the latest technological tool or launching a new student engagement program, but it could be among the most impactful ways to help get students into college and keep them on track to graduate.
The hazards of sludge are particularly evident when it comes to financial aid, but the ugly reality is that sludge is endemic in higher education. Whether it’s guiding students through complex processes to transfer from one institution to another or helping adult learners complete the many steps needed to enroll or re-enroll in degree programs, we regularly find ourselves cutting through thickets of complexity and ambiguity. And while much of the financial aid process is governed at the federal level, the schools that are best serving their students are the ones actively working to reduce sludge in the systems and processes they control.
For example, we worked with the California Community College system to streamline and strengthen the application portal used by over one million students. The result was a set of evidence-based principles to reduce attrition across the application process for the 115 schools in the system. Simple measures (like optimizing the message timing and channel or clarifying next steps and deadlines) are helping these schools keep populations that might otherwise be excluded from higher education on the path toward achieving high-quality credentials. At the same time, institutions like the University of Illinois have demonstrated the power of flexible and streamlined system design to boost the number of students who successfully transfer from two-year institutions to four-year institutions, helping secure Illinois’s place as a national leader in creating pathways for community college students to unlock the expanded career opportunities and earning power that comes with a bachelor’s degree.
Of the many challenges students face in working toward a college degree, needless hassles and red tape shouldn’t be among them.
One great thing about tackling sludge is that you can start small and have an immediate impact (and this goes for higher education or any organization for that matter). One approach is to “mystery shop” student-facing systems and processes: in doing things like filling out applications, registering for courses, or navigating a learning management system yourself, you’ll often uncover a handful of ways to streamline the experience that are easy to implement. For a more formal look at sludge, one of the first activities our team undertakes whenever we partner with a college or university is what we call a “sludge audit.” Using a structured set of principles informed by behavioral science research, we review student-facing communications and processes to identify actionable, evidence-based ways to boost student engagement, ranging from simple tweaks in language to deeper redesigns of underlying systems.
Easing the burden of student debt provides welcome relief for one of the main barriers to higher education, and it underscores the importance of making high-quality degrees and credentials accessible to more students. But there are other, less conspicuous barriers that we can also remove if we start taking sludge seriously. Of the many challenges students face in working toward a college degree, needless hassles and red tape shouldn’t be among them.
Disclosure: Tom Tasche is an employee of ideas42, which provides financial support to Behavioral Scientist as a Founding Partner. Founding Partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.