Posted September 19, 2016

Federal grant helps new faculty member study college retention

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology, is examining whether ‘nudges’ help students complete their financial aid requirements.

 
Sara Goldrick-Rab standing in a computer lab.
Photography By: 
Colin M. Lenton
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a new professor at Temple University, is examining whether ‘nudges’ help students complete their financial aid requirements.

One of the nation’s best-known higher education policy experts has joined Temple University, and she’s brought with her a major federal grant to study college retention among lower-income students.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology in the College of Education, is leading a study on whether financial aid ‘nudges’―text messages that offer reminders about deadlines and other important information―can help students complete their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and meet the academic requirements of the Pell Grant.

“This is an effort to figure out if low-cost information interventions―what some call ‘nudging’―can help financial-aid recipients keep their aid money and stay in college,” said Goldrick-Rab, who recently earned a spot on Politico’s list of 50 visionaries transforming American politics.

She added: “We really need to know if relatively inexpensive supports for students yield big dividends, because higher ed leaders and policymakers are loathe to spend more money these days.”

Too many people are being left behind in this society because of a lack of money. They work hard, and yet get locked out.
-- Sara Goldrick-Rab

The Department of Education is supporting Goldrick-Rab’s study in several ways. The department provided a five-year, $2.2 million grant to Goldrick-Rab and her fellow researchers. It’s also giving the research team access to a nationally representative group of students who were part of a longitudinal survey the department conducted.

“They are letting us get in touch with the students to try and help them succeed in college,” Goldrick-Rab said. “I think that’s ambitious and exciting.”

Goldrick-Rab acknowledges that she thinks the nudges themselves will be insufficient for raising college completion rates, but as a social scientist, she knows it’s important to test that theory to know for sure.

“Too many people are being left behind in this society because of a lack of money. They work hard, and yet get locked out,” Goldrick-Rab said. “That’s antithetical to the American ethos that says hard work will pay off. I’m hoping I will find some ways to make their lives even a little bit easier.”

Goldrick-Rab, who arrived at Temple on July 1, is the author of three books, including the upcoming Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. She recently discussed the book with National Public Radio.

A self-described “scholar-activist,” Goldrick-Rab said her research on financial aid nudges is the kind of project that brought her to Temple.

“I came here to do exactly this sort of work in a city that can’t move forward unless its colleges and universities become more affordable. Temple is living up to expectations―people are creative, committed and unafraid to try new things,” she said. “It’s a perfect home for my bold ideas, and I am so thankful to be part of this community.”

Goldrick-Rab added that Temple’s strong research infrastructure makes it easy for her to perform research here.