Lessons Learned: 21st Century Scholars

Author: Staff

Key Takeaways

  • The results of the 21st Century Scholars study suggest that brief letters and phone calls (nudge reminders) are largely successful in boosting application rates among low-income students. 
  • Prior to the intervention, 31.5% of eligible students had applied to the program. After sending the nudge reminders to study participants, this number increased to 38.6%. 
  • Of the students whose parents received a phone call, the probability of applying to 21st Century Scholars increased to nearly 25%.
  • A simple cost-benefit analysis suggests that completing the 21st Century Scholars and graduating with a college degree leads to a $42,000 gain for each student. Compare this with the cost of enrolling in the program, a mere $36.50 per student.
  • Sending the nudge reminders cost $1,752. In light of the study’s results, nudge reminders are low-cost and effective. 


21st Century Scholars is a state-run college scholarship program for qualified, low-income students in Indiana. The program pays up to 4 years of college tuition for eligible students who pursue college degrees at partnering institutions. 21st Century Scholars prepares students to successfully complete a college degree, which can provide over $1 million in additional lifetime earnings. Still, at-risk students continue to have low application rates. 

Within the South Bend and Penn-Harris-Madison school districts, student application rates are historically low. To encourage students to apply to participate in 21st Century Scholars, school administrators teamed up with LEO researchers to contact parents about the benefits of enrolling in the program before the application deadline. To determine how best to boost application rates, 801 eligible 8th-grade students across both school districts were randomized into 1 of 3 groups. In the first group, 270 families received a phone call about the 21st Century Scholars program and the key information they need to apply. In the second group, 265 families received a letter with the same information. The 266 remaining students became part of the control group, and their parents received neither a phone call nor a letter.

What We Learned

The results of the 21st Century Scholars study suggest that nudge interventions are largely successful in boosting program application rates. Prior to the intervention, 31.5% of eligible students in the South Bend and Penn-Harris-Madison school districts were enrolled in the program. After calling or mailing letters to parents, this number increased to 38.6%. The students of parents who received either a letter or a phone call had higher application rates than the students of parents who did not. 

Of the students in the control group, only 8.9% applied to participate in the 21st Century Scholars program. However, 13% of students in the letter group applied, and 17.1% of students in the call group applied-- that’s a 92% increase over the application rate of the control group. Still, this statistic includes all of the families in the call group, regardless of whether or not contact was actually made. But not all calls reached the intended recipient-- some parents did not have voicemails set up, and some telephone numbers were disconnected. Of the students whose parents actually did receive the call, the probability of enrollment increased to nearly 25%.   

This study provides key insights into the kinds of nudge reminders that are the most effective in boosting application rates. While there’s suggestive evidence that students whose families received a letter reminder were more likely to apply to the 21st Century Scholars program, this evidence was not significant. But if a student was randomly selected to receive a call reminder, they were 8.2 percentage points more likely to apply. 

At the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers also conducted a brief cost-benefit analysis of the intervention and its impact. As a result of the nudge reminders, 48 additional students were enrolled into 21st Century Scholars. Of those who enrolled, 70% are expected to complete the program. Due to its rigorous college preparatory curriculum, it’s estimated that participants are 6% more likely to graduate from college than nonparticipants. And with an estimated $1 million increase in lifetime earnings after completing a college degree, enrolling in the program equates to a $42,000 gain for each student enrolled. Compare this to the cost of a single student enrolling into the program -- a mere $36.50. 

Where We’re Going

Nudging parents to enroll their students in the 21st Century Scholar program is a low-cost intervention that results in significant financial and educational benefits. The intervention itself cost $1,752, and 48 students were enrolled into the program as a result. Because about 70 percent of these students are expected to complete the 21st Century Scholars program, they will be more likely to complete a college degree than students who don’t participate. And for those who do complete their degrees, education pays. This study contributes to the body of literature that explores how simple and relatively low-cost interventions can improve the educational attainment and life outcomes of low-income students. 

This study also importantly reveals that low-income families face an information barrier when it comes to taking advantage of scholarship programs and preparing for college. If this barrier can be addressed through light-touch interventions, school districts have the potential to significantly increase the college enrollment rates of low-income students without assuming a major cost burden. And if light-touch interventions are successful, more intensive college preparatory services may have even larger effects when it comes to furthering the educational success of low-income students and ensuring brighter futures.

 Learn with us.