TASO teamed up with King’s College London and What Works for Children’s Social Care to see how effective a light touch text message intervention was at improving the financial wellbeing and capability of widening participation students.

The discussion around interventions to improve the financial capability and wellbeing of widening participation students frequently surrounds the use of bursaries and financial aid. While undoubtedly important, less is known about how students can be encouraged to utilise existing resources available to improve their management of the money they do have. In a recent study, TASO, King’s College London, and What Works for Children’s Social Care examined whether a light-touch text message intervention might nudge students towards resources and a mindset that could improve their financial wellbeing and capability.

It is well known that students can often struggle with their financial wellbeing¹. For many, their student finance income requires them to manage a single payment across several months – no easy feat, particularly for those experiencing relative financial independence for the first time. Add to this the fact that this payment is often less than needed to cover the basics and it is unsurprising that finances are one of the main reasons for dropping out of university ². Interventions aimed at improving financial wellbeing frequently focus on the role financial aid or education programmes can have. However, they are often either difficult to target (or cannot be given to all students in need) or are expensive relative to their benefit.  People are also more likely to be motivated by and learn from information they actively seek out themselves. Therefore, we sought to examine whether a light-touch intervention which signposts to some of the resources available could be effective at improving the financial wellbeing of students.

At the beginning of the autumn academic term 2021, 15 universities invited widening participation students to complete a survey on their financial wellbeing and capability. The 2,140 people who responded answered questions on their overall wellbeing, financial wellbeing, financial attitudes, behaviours, sense of control and financial confidence before 1,389 were randomised to receive a 10-week text message intervention or not.

The intervention signposted students to university and external resources, used mental accounting and reminded students of the fresh start a new week provided to get on top of their finances. While providing little information within the texts themselves it was hoped that students would use them as a springboard for their own education. At the end of term, we asked students the same financial wellbeing and capability questions as at the beginning of term in addition to a couple of items on their help and information seeking behaviours. So, was the intervention enough to give students’ financial wellbeing a boost?

On most measures of financial wellbeing and capability there was no difference in responses between those that saw the text messages and those that didn’t. The only exception was for financial attitudes which were slightly more favourable for those who saw the treatment (even when controlling for their responses at the beginning of term, relative deprivation and living at home during term). The likelihood to engage in information seeking was however greater for those who saw the text messages suggesting they were less likely to state an intention to ‘tune out’ financial messages when they come up.

Based on this study alone, a simple text message nudge towards information seeking is unlikely to result in a meaningful impact on the financial wellbeing of students in the same way that money in the pocket or more intensive ‘just in time’ education might. However, the low-cost strategy certainly seems to do no harm and opens the possibility that the efficacy of other small interventions may be worth exploring.


¹ https://www.independent.co.uk/money/spend-save/student-debt-money-advice-university-freshers-week-payday-loans-a9112961.html

² https://www.savethestudent.org/money/surveys/student-money-survey-2021-results.html