By ideas42

On a recent weekday morning, a group of entrepreneurs, teachers, computer programmers, and college administrators from all over the country assembled with behavioral experts from ideas42 in pursuit of a venerable mission: identifying a way to double three-year degree completion rates among U.S. community college students. This mission, earnestly accepted by all members of the group, has an unusual caveat: it can only be achieved using educational technology (EdTech) products.

This unique and talented group are also known as the Semi-Finalists in the Robin Hood College Success Prize, a $5 million dollar competition designed by ideas42 and the Robin Hood Foundation to catalyze technology-based solutions to one of the most pressing problems in U.S. higher education. Currently, only 28% of community college students who enroll in one or more remedial courses will go on to earn a diploma within 8.5 years. Students who don’t graduate miss out on the significant income bump a college degree offers, and often face the added burden of student loan debt.

In addition to designing the College Success Prize with our partners at Robin Hood, our team at ideas42 is actively working to equip contestants with behavioral insights that will help them increase the efficacy of their technologies. The recent convening of Semi-Finalists with our behavioral experts in New York was an important first step: a one-day workshop offering teams a crash-course in the application of key behavioral concepts to education technology. In other words, we’re providing Semi-Finalist teams with powerful new tools to help them achieve their mission.

Harvard economist and ideas42 co-founder Sendhil Mullainathan set the tone for the day with a keynote presentation on the psychology of scarcity, which tells us that a lack of time or money (both of which are in short supply among many community college students) levies a heavy cognitive “tax”. This burden leads students to intensely focus, or “tunnel”, on the most urgent task at hand, while neglecting important but less urgent tasks. Scarcity emerges in many ways in community colleges, from finances and financial aid to turning in math assignments and balancing extracurricular activities. Understanding this is key to designing effective EdTech products that will positively impact this population.

Additional members of our team offered crucial insights into the role self-control, prospective memory, and other key behavioral concepts that can play into students’ lives (and thus into Semi-Finalists’ products). Lively breakout session discussions ranged from efforts to pinpoint the design features that might make onboarding difficult for students, to generating ideas for harnessing the power of social norms to promote beneficial habits in students.

Armed with behavioral design ideas and $40,000 in development funding, the Semi-Finalists will now be hard at work until January 2015. At that point, they’ll have a chance to demonstrate the fruits of their labor at the College Success Prize Showcase Day. The Prize’s panel of expert judges will then select up to three Finalists to advance to the next round of the challenge.

Click here for more information about the Robin Hood College Success Prize.