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UC Berkeley Experiments Show Low-Cost Outreach Encouraged California College Students to Apply for CalFresh

Berkeley, CA, August 18, 2022 — The CalFresh program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, can help college students pay for their groceries, but many eligible students don’t enroll in the program. Experts believe one reason may be that students are not aware of their eligibility. In two new experiments, researchers from The People Lab and the California Policy Lab partnered with the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) and the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) to test if telling students about their eligibility would increase applications and enrollment in CalFresh.

In response to the pandemic, Congress temporarily expanded eligibility for SNAP/CalFresh benefits to more college students. The research teams tested whether outreach about this eligibility change (via email and postcards) to about 285,000 California college students would increase applications and enrollment. The experiments took place during the spring and summer of 2021. The authors estimate that more than 7,000 students applied for CalFresh as a result of the first round of outreach. In the second round of outreach, the researchers found that a postcard paired with an email was especially impactful.

“In our email-only experiment, we found that sending students an email about their eligibility encourages many of them to apply and enroll, and that sending two emails worked better than sending only one,” explains co-author Jesse Rothstein, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy and Economics at UC Berkeley and the faculty director of the California Policy Lab’s UC Berkeley site. “Receiving two emails increased the share who enroll in CalFresh within two months by 57%.”

“In our postcard and email experiment, almost 3% of students who received an email subsequently applied for CalFresh,” explains co-author Jessica Lasky Fink, a PhD candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and a Research Director at The People Lab. “However, we found that sending both an email and a postcard resulted in about 5% of students applying, almost twice as many as compared to students who were sent just an email.”

“College students should focus on their studies, not on worrying about whether or not they can afford their next meal,” explains Tae Kang, Deputy Director of Programs at the California Student Aid Commission. “We were glad to partner on this outreach that helped thousands of newly eligible students apply for CalFresh. CSAC will continue to develop outreach strategies to more effectively support students with accessing these benefits.”

The eligibility change that Congress enacted meant that enrolled college students who had previously filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and had zero expected family contribution (EFC) or who qualified for work study became eligible for CalFresh so long as they met the program’s citizenship and income requirements. As a result, a substantial number of California college students became eligible for CalFresh for the first time. This eligibility policy change will remain in place until 30 days after COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted at the federal level. Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, renewed this determination on July 15, 2022.

In the “postcard and email” experiment, students who met the new eligibility criteria were randomly assigned to receive one of seven outreach conditions. The conditions tested not only the mode (email only, or email and postcard) but also the language of the emails- with versions testing if simplifying language, using de-stigmatizing language, or using re-assuring language (there’s enough benefits for all students) would have an impact. The researchers found that simplified language increased applications slightly, but caution that other content adjustments may not have an impact. This experiment measured applications for CalFresh (the first step in enrollment) and found that 10,000 contacted students applied for CalFresh during the six weeks following outreach.

In the “email only” experiment, students who met the new eligibility criteria were randomly assigned to receive emails during a specific weekday over the course of two months. Because the exact email timing was assigned randomly, the researchers could measure the impact of receiving an email in February by comparing students to others who didn’t receive an email until March. Still other students, also selected at random, received no email, or received two emails, about a day apart. Among students who received two emails in February, 3.7% enrolled in CalFresh that month, compared to 2.4% of students who received only one email, 1.5% of students who received no email, and 1.3% of students who wouldn’t receive an email until March. The fact that some students who had not received emails still enrolled in CalFresh may reflect other outreach efforts not captured in these experiments.

The researchers explain that CSAC and CDSS could use the results to further refine how they notify students about their eligibility. However, they also note that students may face other obstacles to applying, enrolling, and staying enrolled in safety-net programs like CalFresh. This may include understanding other eligibility rules, securing the proper paperwork, and once enrolled, continuing to meet recertification requirements. The authors suggest improvements in all of these stages will be needed to increase access and participation in safety-net programs.
Additional background

The California Policy Lab (CPL) is partnering with the California Community College system (CCC), the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), and the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) to build and analyze a linked database of student-level administrative data on college enrollment, financial aid, and CalFresh participation. Future research from CPL will use the new linked dataset to measure eligibility rates and show how many likely eligible college students are participating in CalFresh. This project was made possible through support from the Spencer Foundation. The research reported here was also supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A220451 to The Regents of the University of California – Berkeley. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

The California Policy Lab (CPL) creates data-driven insights for the public good. Our mission is to partner with California’s state and local governments to generate scientific evidence that solves California’s most urgent issues, including homelessness, poverty, criminal justice reform, and education inequality. We facilitate close working partnerships between policymakers and researchers at the University of California to help evaluate and improve public programs through empirical research and technical assistance.

The People Lab (TPL) aims to empower the public sector by producing cutting-edge research on the people in government and the communities they are called to serve. Using evidence from public management and insights from behavioral science, we study, design, and test strategies that can solve urgent public sector challenges in three core areas: strengthening the government workforce, improving government-resident interactions, and reimagining evidence-based policymaking.

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