In Fall 2014, 7.3 million students matriculated at community colleges across the United States. Many were first-time freshmen who faced a number of important decisions: whether to enroll full- or part-time, what course of study to pursue, which classes to select. As the semester unfolded, they were confronted with smaller but still consequential choices: Should I attend today’s classes or not? How am I going to study for next week’s exam? When do I ask an advisor for help?

While no student will choose optimally every time, a series of relatively minor errors can have lasting effects on long-term outcomes. For example, unknowingly (or knowingly) enrolling in courses that don’t count toward degree requirements or forgetting to submit important financial aid paperwork on time can increase the time it takes to graduate and derail even the most motivated students. Indeed, only about 28% of those first-time community college students who were required to take remedial courses – the majority of students – goes on to earn a degree or certificate within 8.5 years of matriculating.Community colleges recognize the challenges facing their students, many of whom are first-generation college attendees, come from low-income families, or are balancing school with full-time employment and/or parenthood. In response, colleges have developed a number of innovative resources for these students. Unfortunately, the most effective solutions tend to be both time- and cost-intensive, and therefore difficult for already overburdened systems to scale.

Could a technology-based product provide a more cost-effective way to dramatically increase student persistence and graduation rates? This is the question posed by the Robin Hood College Success Prize. Designed and administered by ideas42, the Prize seeks to stimulate and reward the development of technologies that help community college students in remedial education stay on track.

The competition recently reached a major milestone when three teams were selected by an expert panel to compete as Finalists in a full randomized controlled trial (RCT) launching at the City University of New York (CUNY) in Fall 2015. One of the more unique themes emerging in this prize competition is that each of the Finalist teams—Beyond 12, Education Advisory Board, and Kinvolved—made a point to highlight the behavioral science principles incorporated in their technology platforms.

This makes a lot of sense: success in the Prize will hinge on changing the behaviors of student users rather than simply on the sophistication of the Finalists’ platforms. That is why each team worked hard to anticipate and design around potential behavioral problems. Recognizing that many students have difficulty keeping track of multiple deadlines and degree requirements, for instance, their solutions provide text or email reminders at just the right times. Noting the reluctance of some students to seek support when they need it, the apps gently nudge students toward campus resources and reduce the hassles involved in accessing them.

In the coming months, ideas42 will work with Finalists to refine and augment these and other behavioral components via one-on-one behavioral advising. If the College Success Prize Finalists’ technologies are successful, CUNY students (and eventually, college students across the nation) may find it a little easier to face the many decisions that confront them this Fall and beyond.