Using the messenger effect and time progression to increase CSA engagement

Text message reminders
Experiment Type
Field Experiment
Increase engagement
Increase long-term savings
Focus Areas
Marketing & messaging
Behavioral Concepts
Trusted messenger
St. Louis Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE)
Partner Type

What Happened

It is unclear. While there was a significant effect that suggests a school principal being a more effective messenger than a local government official, it was small and the portion of the sample that contributed to a CSA was extremely small (< 1%).

Lessons Learned

This study suggests that a school principal could be a more effective messenger than a local government official, but due to the lack of actual deposits, further investigation into the effect of a messenger on savings behavior is needed.


According to the College Board, tuition at four-year public colleges has risen more than 100% since 2001. In recent years, financial aid packages have not kept up with rising tuition costs. In the face of rising costs, families need to start saving and planning for college as early as possible. Saving for college through a 529 College Saving Plan or a College Savings Account (CSA) offers families tax-exempt savings and often other benefits, such as matched savings and student attendance rewards. Sadly, only 16% of parents use savings from a 529 savings account to help pay for college, suggesting these accounts are highly underutilized.

We continued our partnership with the St. Louis Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) to specifically focus on how to encourage greater engagement with the child savings accounts. Through the St. Louis OFE’s College Kids program, every kindergarten student receives a children’s savings account (CSA) with a $50 seed deposit, as well as other incentives. In 2018, in these studies, CSA engagement is defined by deposit amount and frequency, as well as return of a consent form that allows deposits into their child’s CSA based on school attendance, if returned.

Key Insights

There has been a lot of work done already to explore what prevents families from making use of CSAs. However, we conducted upfront work to see how these factors manifested here– these included qualitative interviews with parents, analyzing administrative data, and a co-creation design session with parents, teachers, coordinators, and school coordinators. We identified several, especially relevant factors to understanding why so few families save with the College Kids program.

  • Parents may lack sufficient trust in the program. Trust is a common issue faced by CSA programs that are offering “free money” to families. Many people are hesitant to take a deal that feels a little too easy.

  • People think myopically about the future. Encouraging parents with young children to start preparing financially is difficult because the benefits of doing so are not easy to immediately understand, and they will only materialize a long time off in the future.


Research suggests who delivers a message and how it is delivered can change how the message is received. For example, people respond more favorably to a message when it is delivered by experts, authority figures, or people they know and trust. We hypothesized that using a trusted source to send messages that emphasized the progression of time would increase CSA engagement.

To test our hypothesis, we sent parents text messages to remind them to take actions on their accounts. These messages were sent in combination with a start-of-year packet to inform parents about the program. Note that everyone who received an SMS actually received two messages – one that arrived the same day as the packet and one that arrived a week later.

Parents were randomly assigned to receive text messages as if they were sent from different figures of authority: either the school principal (the name varied by school) or the city treasurer (a well-known public figure). Another set of parents were randomly assigned not to receive any text message at all. This question of who should offer information about the program –the school or the city – is one that is ubiquitous across college savings programs, so testing this may offer scalable insights in the field.


In total, our sample consisted of 8,341 parents. This sample included parents from all participating school years with an active mobile phone number on file. Due to a technical issue, parents from public schools received the SMS messages before the start-of-year packets; however, in our analysis we found no difference in deposit rates by school type, suggesting that the delay did not have any effect.

Overall, deposit rates were very low. Only 53 people (<1%) made deposits during the experimental period. While no differences were statistically significant, we observed that the time progression messages from the principal may have performed better than the control.

Interestingly, among the 53 parents who made a deposit, parents who received a message from the school principal saved an extra $30 on average. While the total deposits were very low, this leads to a $0.29 increase in the average first deposit when this is expanded to the whole population, which is statistically significant. However, with so few deposits, saying anything definitively about this effect is difficult. Nevertheless, this calls for further investigation into the effect of messenger on savings behavior.