How Can Behavioral Science Reform Higher Ed?

Jun 2, 2015 in Blog

At ideas42 we do a lot of work applying behavioral science to challenges in higher education. Obtaining a university education is an incredibly strong predictor of individual earnings and economic mobility. But, unfortunately, the barriers to completing a degree are growing, with ballooning costs and student debt stifling economic growth and opportunity. This growing crisis is why we’ve started more than 15 projects to date aimed at reforming academic and financial systems at colleges and universities around the country (regular readers of our blog might remember this recent post outlining key insights we’ve uncovered so far).

We’re therefore excited to see behavioral science increasingly recognized as an effective tool for innovation. Young Invincibles just released a report that explores how behavioral science and cognitive psychology can improve the delivery of financial aid information to students and their families.

The report draws from academic research on consumer behavior, applying what we know about cognitive biases and choice patterns to college selection and financial aid. While we won’t attempt to summarize the entire report, we do want to highlight one of the many areas of overlap with our own work.

As we’ve mentioned in a previous post, we believe college is filled with unnecessarily complex processes that generate a number of behavioral bottlenecks. Young Invincible’s research shows that financial aid information is no different. A number of poorly-designed behavioral features in the current system can lead to sub-optimal choice, such as ambiguous information, framing effects, choice overload, and tedious information search. To address these issues, the report outlines a number of specific methods to optimize the presentation of information to students:

  • Pare down the number of attributes for each type of financial aid that is presented to students
  • Use aggregation and summarization to keep the number of information dimensions to a minimum
  • Modify information displays to be more consumer-friendly
  • Present financial aid options with easily alignable characteristics
  • Provide relevant financial information in both dollar terms and percentage terms

The Young Invincibles’ report offers actionable ways for both policy-makers and education advocates to apply behavioral science to the often-confusing process of college choice and financial aid. And it’s a great tool for us, too! We’ll be referencing it as we continue developing our own soon-to-be-completed project on college choice for low-income high school students in partnership with the Youth Policy Institute.

Behavioral science can’t change the entire education system overnight. But we believe that our work, as well as that of other innovative organizations like Young Invincibles, can highlight the many ways in which behavioral science provides a clear path forward for real change.