America’s future economic competitiveness, individuals’ economic opportunity, and reducing income inequality all depend heavily on increasing the number of graduates of quality postsecondary education programs. Fortunately, there is now a general consensus for the need to improve this hard-to-move outcome. The focus has turned to figuring out what is cost-effective and designing postsecondary policies and programs that are effective. Behavioral economics, and more specifically the emerging practice of behavioral design, has much to contribute to these efforts.

Today ideas42 releases a white paper that describes how the design of postsecondary programs could align with principles of behavior to achieve significantly better outcomes. The paper segments the path to postsecondary success into three phases — postsecondary preparation, the transition to postsecondary education, and postsecondary completion — to show how behavioral solutions need to be different in each of them. It highlights a few behavioral efforts that are already in the field and provides illustrative examples of behavioral insights that hold promise for future innovation. These examples are not exhaustive. Rather, the paper invites readers to use these examples to think deeply about behaviors that are impacting decision making and to think creatively about how behavioral economics can be applied to improve many outcomes in postsecondary education.

The paper argues that:

Many well-intentioned programs, in education and in other domains, underperform because people do not behave the way we expect. Programs are not taken up by the people who need them, people don’t follow through even though they intend to, and scarce resources are often not spent the way program designers anticipate. Behavioral economics provides a new way to help us understand why we arrive at these suboptimal outcomes by providing insight into how people behave and make decisions.

This paper and a corresponding convening* that we held on May 23, 2013, are the beginning of ideas42′s engagement in this important subject area. The convening brought together 120 of the field’s leading experts, practitioners, and funders. By combining our expertise in behavioral design with the deep knowledge of these experts and practitioners, we can build on the progress that the field has already made to develop and bring to scale solutions to these seemingly intractable behavioral problems. Stay tuned for what is coming next.

* Both the paper and the convening were made possible through the generous support of the Citi Foundation.