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Student Loan Nudges: Experimental Evidence on Borrowing and Educational Attainment


  • Benjamin M. Marx
  • Lesley J. Turner


We estimate the impact of student loan “nudges” on community college students' borrowing and provide the first experimental evidence of the effect of student loans on educational attainment. Nonbinding loan offers listed in students' financial aid award letters, that do not alter students' choice sets, significantly affect borrowing. Students randomly assigned to receive a nonzero loan offer were 40 percent more likely to borrow than those who received a $0 loan offer. Nudge-induced borrowing increased both GPA and credits earned by roughly 30 percent in the year of the intervention, and in the following year, increased transfers to four-year colleges by 10 percentage points (nearly 200 percent). We predict that the average student would be better off receiving a nonzero loan offer for any discount rate below 12.4 percent. Students' borrowing responses to the nudge are most consistent with a model in which nonzero offers provide information about loan eligibility, suggesting that for most students, nonzero offers are welfare enhancing. Given that over 5 million U.S. college students receive $0 loan offers, our results indicate the potential to achieve large gains in educational attainment through changes to the choice architecture around borrowing.

Suggested Citation

  • Benjamin M. Marx & Lesley J. Turner, 2017. "Student Loan Nudges: Experimental Evidence on Borrowing and Educational Attainment," NBER Working Papers 24060, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:24060
    Note: ED LS PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Ann Huff Stevens & Michal Kurlaender & Michel Grosz, 2019. "Career Technical Education and Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence from California Community Colleges," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 54(4), pages 986-1036.
    2. Castleman, Benjamin L. & Page, Lindsay C., 2015. "Summer nudging: Can personalized text messages and peer mentor outreach increase college going among low-income high school graduates?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 115(C), pages 144-160.
    3. Dynarski, Susan M. & Scott–Clayton, Judith E., 2006. "The Cost of Complexity in Federal Student Aid: Lessons From Optimal Tax Theory and Behavioral Economics," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 59(2), pages 319-356, June.
    4. Raj Chetty & John N. Friedman & Søren Leth-Petersen & Torben Heien Nielsen & Tore Olsen, 2014. "Active vs. Passive Decisions and Crowd-Out in Retirement Savings Accounts: Evidence from Denmark," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 129(3), pages 1141-1219.
    5. Turner, Lesley J., 2016. "The returns to higher education for marginal students: Evidence from Colorado Welfare recipients," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 169-184.
    6. Eric P. Bettinger & Bridget Terry Long & Philip Oreopoulos & Lisa Sanbonmatsu, 2009. "The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment," NBER Working Papers 15361, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Barr, Andrew & Turner, Sarah, 2015. "Out of work and into school: Labor market policies and college enrollment during the Great Recession," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 124(C), pages 63-73.
    8. B. Douglas Bernheim & Andrey Fradkin & Igor Popov, 2015. "The Welfare Economics of Default Options in 401(k) Plans," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 105(9), pages 2798-2837, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. Damgaard, Mette Trier & Nielsen, Helena Skyt, 2018. "Nudging in education," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 64(C), pages 313-342.
    2. Jeffrey T. Denning & Benjamin M. Marx & Lesley J. Turner, 2019. "ProPelled: The Effects of Grants on Graduation, Earnings, and Welfare," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 11(3), pages 193-224, July.
    3. Stephanie R. Cellini & Rajeev Darolia & Lesley J. Turner, 2020. "Where Do Students Go When For-Profit Colleges Lose Federal Aid?," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 12(2), pages 46-83, May.
    4. James C. Cox & Daniel Kreisman & Susan Dynarski, 2018. "Designed to Fail: Effects of the Default Option and Information Complexity on Student Loan Repayment," Experimental Economics Center Working Paper Series 2018-04, Experimental Economics Center, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University, revised Mar 2020.
    5. Jeffrey T. Denning, 2019. "Born under a Lucky Star: Financial Aid, College Completion, Labor Supply, and Credit Constraints," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 54(3), pages 760-784.
    6. Abraham, Katharine G. & Filiz-Ozbay, Emel & Ozbay, Erkut Y. & Turner, Lesley J., 2020. "Framing effects, earnings expectations, and the design of student loan repayment schemes," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 183(C).
    7. Meredith Phillips & Sarah J. Reber, 2019. "Does Virtual Advising Increase College Enrollment? Evidence from a Random Assignment College Access Field Experiment," NBER Working Papers 26509, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Oreopoulos, Philip, 2019. "What Limits College Success? A Review and Further Analysis of Holzer and Baum's 'Making College Work'," IZA Policy Papers 150, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    9. Azzolini, Davide & Martini, Alberto & Rettore, Enrico & Romano, Barbara & Schizzerotto, Antonio & Vergolini, Loris, 2018. "Testing a Social Innovation in Financial Aid for Low-Income Students: Experimental Evidence from Italy," IZA Discussion Papers 11625, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D12 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Empirical Analysis
    • D14 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Saving; Personal Finance
    • D91 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on Decision Making
    • I22 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Educational Finance; Financial Aid

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