Education has long been touted as a ticket out of poverty, and a well-educated workforce is the foundation of a competitive economy. So it’s easy to think education advocates can solve a lot of problems by convincing high school students to go to college—but the data tells us most high-schoolers are already convinced. In fact, 93% of them aspire to go to college.
If that’s the case, then why don’t more Americans hold college degrees?
Diving deeper into the data hints at the long and winding journey to college graduation: of the students who plan to go to college about 10% don’t apply, and another 10-40% are accepted but don’t enroll. And of the students who do enroll in college, only about half complete their degree.
Applying to, enrolling in, and completing college is an enormous undertaking, and more students drop out of the process at each stage. But using what we know from behavioral science can help students achieve their goals. Our recent report on the college completion crisis, Nudging for Success, in which we shared results of behavioral interventions that meaningfully impacted students’ well-being and persistence, is an introduction to our work applying behavioral science to the long journey to a degree.
Following the release of Nudging for Success, we’re excited to share a new postsecondary education project in which we looked at the complex pathway to college and graduation from the student’s perspective.
After interviewing students, parents, and education experts, and reviewing comprehensive research on higher education, we created 19 new recommendations to address potential behavioral bottlenecks and help students—particularly low-income and underrepresented students—successfully navigate applying for and selecting a school and beyond.
These recommendations, developed with the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are now available in Mapping Critical Student Decisions Through College. This work recognizes that getting to graduation day involves a series of complex choices that students need help navigating.
For example, automatically signing up students to take the SAT or ACT with the option to opt-out (rather than requiring them to opt-in) can increase enrollment in 4-year colleges by 10% among low-income and first-generation students.
Another often-misunderstood issue is school selection. Many digital tools exist where users can filter options based on location, academics, average test scores, and more to aid their search for schools. While these tools are useful in narrowing their search, we found that the way choices are presented to students typically undervalues school quality and can lead to a poor academic match. Selective schools tend to offer better financial aid packages, reducing the debt load on students, and low-income, high-achieving students at selective schools graduate at higher rates than nonselective schools. We suggest several ways that the most popular college list-building sites can improve their functionality to best serve the needs of low-income students—for instance, by displaying average net price instead of ‘sticker’ price and by helping students narrow the field of choice based on academic criteria before moving on to their other personal preferences.
We also examined the context that makes building good financial health challenging for low-income students. Financial plan-making along with reminders to prompt follow-through can reduce student stress around financial health, which in turn creates more mental bandwidth for academics. We recommend integrating budgeting, saving, reminders, and other behavioral elements into students’ financial lives from the very start.