Simplification, Assistance, and Incentives: A Randomized Experiment to Increase College Savings
Bridget Terry Long, Harvard University
Dr. Bridget Terry Long, Ph.D. is Academic Dean and the Saris Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Long is an economist who specializes in the study of education, in particular the transition from high school to higher education and beyond. Her work focuses on college student access and choice and the factors that influence students’ postsecondary and labor market outcomes. Current projects examine the roles of information and assistance in promoting college savings, the completion of aid applications, and college enrollment. Other work examines the effects of financial aid programs, the impact of postsecondary remediation, and the role of instructor quality, class size, and support programs on student outcomes.
This paper evaluates an intervention designed to help families prepare for the expense of their children’s college educations. Working with the Boston Public Schools, we implemented a series of school and community workshops focused on the parents of 7th to 10th graders that provided information about 529 college savings plans. Using a RCT design, we offered some families additional help by giving them a simplified way to enroll; another group also received monetary incentives to invest in such accounts. We analyze the effects of these different types of supports by examining their effects on account openings and subsequent savings behavior. Additional information was collected on other savings behavior. The results suggest that low awareness of savings options and the complexity of the process to open a 529 account are major barriers to participation. Our $50 monetary incentive had a strong, positive effect on take-up rates, and importantly, families were much more likely to engage in additional savings and even sign up for automatic monthly contributions even though we provided no additional support or information. These findings have important implications for policy as well as the way schools and non-profits could work with families.