College & Workforce Readiness

You Want More Students Applying for Financial Aid? Bring in Michelle Obama.

By Catherine Gewertz — July 12, 2017 2 min read
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Researchers spend long hours trying to figure out how to get high school students to apply for financial aid. It turns out that Michelle Obama is a powerful weapon in that fight.

A new study from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education has found that a visit from the former First Lady can spark “substantial increases” in a community’s FAFSA-completion rate. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the door-opener to grants and loans.

A team of three researchers from the University of Virginia examined four FAFSA-completion events Obama headlined in the spring of 2014: in Washington. D.C., New Orleans, San Antonio, Texas, and Topeka, Kansas. They studied FAFSA filing rates by 12th-grade students in the school districts where the events happened, and compared them to the rates in “synthetic control” districts, composites created by using the weighted average of similar districts statewide.

In the weeks before Obama’s appearances, the FAFSA-filing rates in the synthetic-control districts were the same as those in the districts where she was scheduled to appear. But in the districts where she spoke, FAFSA-filing rates rose four to five percentage points more than they did in the control districts.

In San Antonio, for instance, before Obama’s appearance on May 2, 2014, about 44 percent of the high school seniors had finished the FAFSA, and 41 percent had done so in a synthetic control district. After the First Lady’s visit, the FAFSA filing rate rose to about 54 percent in San Antonio—a 10-percentage-point increase—while it reached only 46 percent in the comparison district, an increase of only 5 percentage points, according to Katharine Meyer, a UVA doctoral student who led the research project.

Michelle Obama made college access and success a major priority during her tenure as First Lady. Through her “Reach Higher” and “Better Make Room” campaigns, Obama tried to get students to envision a life that included postsecondary education, and start planning for it.

Here’s one video in a collection she posted on YouTube about the importance of filling out the FAFSA:

Obama also took a less serious tack sometimes, as in this rap video she made urging young people to go to college. Michelle Obama continues to make appearances in support of college access and success, including a New York City rally in May, orchestrated by MTV, for “college signing day.”

Benjamin L. Castleman, a UVA assistant professor who worked on the new policy brief, led a college-completion initiative for Michelle Obama called “Up Next.” It used text messages to remind high school students of key steps in applying for college and financial aid. It also texted college students to guide them through renewing their financial aid, and recent college graduates to help them manage their loan repayments. The work is one of many projects that examine the role small reminders—or “nudges"—can play in students’ choices.

Photo: First lady Michelle Obama speaks to student Shayla Stephens, second from left, and her mother Sheree Stephens, left, at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., in 2014, during a workshop to encourage students to fill out the FAFSA.—Susan Walsh/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.