The Opportunity to Ramp Up College Access

Key Research Points to Scalable Solutions for Expanding College Financial Readiness

Ramp It Up fulfills a very real imperative—an introduction to the complicated college financial assistance landscape in a low stress, no-risk environment. Based on new insights from academic research, we are exploring how Ramp It Up might be used as a first-touch intervention in early or pre-high school stage of preparing for college financing. Commonwealth is seeking partnerships with organizations interested in bringing Ramp It Up to scale. For a demo or to discuss potential partnerships, contact Taylor Straatmann at

The complex process of applying for financial aid poses a persistent barrier to receiving a college education for financially vulnerable people. In 2017, Commonwealth successfully piloted “Ramp It Up,” a gamified college financial readiness app that introduces students to information and online resources about paying for higher education. For our next phase of Ramp It Up, recent research on college financial readiness highlights the need for low-cost, scalable innovations to improve student understanding and confidence around paying for college.

In September, Commonwealth presented at the National College Access Network (NCAN) annual conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In Ramp It Up: Gamifying College Financial Readiness, we explored gamification as one method to improve college financial readiness using our pilot of Ramp It Up as a proof point to spark further discussion. Commonwealth recognizes the essential nature of a college education to build financial capability, and an understanding of the true cost of college as central to postsecondary success. New evidence from ongoing academic research on college access continues to inform our work and make the case that Ramp It Up is a unique and engaging tool to help students navigate the complex world of college financing.

The college admissions process in the United States is onerous for families across the socioeconomic spectrum. However, it represents a significant barrier to higher education for low-income and first-generation students in particular, who may lack parental support and experience, access to resources, and time. Research consistently shows that the best way to help students effectively navigate this patchwork system of loans, grants, and scholarships is individual guidance and mentoring from someone with specialized knowledge about college admissions and financing. However, hiring more college counselors is not a fiscal reality for many cash-strapped school districts. One-to-one interventions are far from meeting demand for mentors and student guides for low- and middle-income students.

We recently took another look at academic research around college financial readiness. Recent developments in the literature highlight the viability of low-cost solutions to persistent lack of understanding around college financing.

Most of these efforts have focused on one area: increasing rates of FAFSA completion. The FAFSA is an infamously long and complicated form. Federal Student Aid has argued that the length and complexity of the form is necessary so that the limited aid available reaches the neediest students. However, low-income students are the least likely to submit the form or complete it early. This contradiction represents a mismatch in the FAFSA’s stated purpose and the actual distribution of federal financial awards across all income levels.The following interventions have shown promising results:

  • Personalized text messages providing information about financial aid deadlines to college students increased enrollment through the spring semester of sophomore year by 14 percentage points.
  • Smartphone app reminders guiding students through the FAFSA process over a period of weeks increased FAFSA completion by 15 percentage points, and increased the likelihood of receiving an aid award by 29 percentage points.
  • FAFSA assistance bundled with tax return preparation meetings increased FAFSA completion by 16 percentage points, college enrollment by 8 percentage points, and persistence through the second year of college by 8 percentage points for high school seniors whose parents received assistance.

Widespread loan aversion among students and parents at low-resource schools pose another challenge. There is evidence that prior experience with payday lending also contributes to debt-averse attitudes for financing education.

  • To help students in making informed borrowing decisions, 8 interactive text messages were sent to community college students after they applied for a loan showed decreased likelihood of taking an unsubsidized loan by 3 percentage points for the whole sample, and 9 percentage points for students with high debt.

The Opportunity
Due to the cost-prohibitive nature of in-person counseling, an opportunity remains for low-cost, scalable innovations that help students access resources that help them learn how to pay for college. Students need knowledgeable guides to help filter and translate the litany of online college search and financing tools in order for those tools to be useful. Ramp It Up has proven to be a cost-effective and impactful solution to filling knowledge gaps and increasing confidence around college financial readiness. Gamified learning has continued to make waves in other arenas. Ramp It Up recently gained a mention in the New York Times alongside a game that seeks to get late-career professionals to think more about planning for retirement.

Ramp It Up uses gamified features such as lives, power-ups, badges, and embedded mechanics to encourage engagement with learning objectives and resources. Many people, particularly youth, like the challenge, competition, and entertainment that games provide, which makes games an effective teaching tool.

Commonwealth is seeking partnerships with organizations interested in bringing Ramp It Up to scale. For a demo or to discuss potential partnerships, contact Taylor Straatmann at If you'd like to learn more about Ramp It Up, click here to download our reports on the design and pilot process.

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