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Making College Work: Nudging Student Behavior

In their new book, Making College Work, Georgetown University Professor Harry J. Holzer and Urban Institute Senior Fellow Sandy Baum explore why more low-income students don't complete college and what policy solutions we can use to turn that around. In this excerpt, they discuss the social psychological strategies or "nudges" that can encourage students to persist.

Even students who have affordable college options, and adequate academic skills and preparation, too frequently do not enroll in college. Many who do enroll attend institutions where they are unlikely to succeed or likely to leave school before earning a credential.

As insights from the cognitive sciences increase our understanding of human behavior and decisionmaking, it is becoming increasingly clear that changes in the way information and options are framed can have a significant impact on choices. Moreover, small and subtle pushes or “nudges” can measurably improve student outcomes.

Very few students make decisions by simply weighing the long-term costs and benefits, and going down the path that leads to the outcome they desire. We should be guiding students in constructive directions, without unduly limiting their autonomy.

Recent experimental studies yield important results about modifying student behavior. For example, one study found that an automated, personalized text-messaging campaign to remind high school graduates of important summer tasks significantly increased the number of disadvantaged students accepted to college who actually enrolled in the fall.

In an experiment in which H&R Block tax assistants filled out financial aid applications at the same time they completed tax forms for some low-income filers, high school graduates who received this service were eight percentage points more likely than others to enroll in college.

A key understanding behind the effectiveness of these behavioral interventions is that people tend to take the path of least resistance when faced with difficult or complex choices. A seminal study showed that switching pension plan registration from requiring new employees to check a box if they wanted to join the plan to requiring them to actively opt out if they did not want to join significantly in- creased participation.

The idea of making the “default option” one that is mostly likely to lead to success is behind the creation of structured curriculum pathways in community colleges. Leaving students to choose without guidance among thousands of courses is less effective than designing a set of courses they will take unless they actively choose to make substitutions. Low-cost, low-touch interventions can affect both behaviors and attitudes.

Many first-generation students are unfamiliar with college norms and expectations. Simply informing them that people like them who succeed attend all class sessions, or that their peers typically participate in study groups, can induce them to adapt to those norms. Similarly, brief exposure to positive descriptions that increase their sense of belonging in college can increase the academic performance of first-generation and minority students.

For example, one experiment showed that a small amount of reading and writing about how students adjust to college dispelled the concerns of African American students that they were not suited to the college environment enough to markedly increase their grades over the coming year. Variations on a combination of personalized attention and automatic nudges have the potential to move the needle on student success.

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Time management is a serious problem for students facing the unfamiliar demands of college, particularly for those who have work and family responsibilities. The evidence from behavioral sciences about the impact of reminders, of asking people to commit in advance to carrying out tasks at a specified time, and of simplifying their options is mounting. Applying these insights to supporting student success holds great promise.

More experimentation will improve understanding of the optimal amount of structure and the optimal design of nudges and reminders for students. But rather than just trying to pound basic quantitative and verbal skills into students with weak academic preparation, institutions should focus on straightforward ways to improve their self- confidence and their organizational skills, keep them on track to complete the required daily tasks, and make it easier for them to make choices that will serve them well.

In a different vein, a small number of states have begun requiring that all high school seniors register for and take the SAT or ACT college entrance exam. Careful studies analyzing changes in college application and enrollment behavior in these states, relative to those that do not require the tests, find notable increases, particularly in four-year and more selective institutions.

Harry J. Holzer is a Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University, an Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings. He is also a former Chief Economist at the US Department of Labor.

Sandy Baum is a higher education economist and a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute. She has written extensively on college access, college financing, financial aid, and student debt.

Their book, Making College Work, was published by Brookings Institution Press on Aug. 29. Learn more and order the book here.