As regular readers of this blog will know, a big focus of our work at ideas42 is helping to tackle difficult problems in postsecondary education.

During an interactive webinar last week, we shared our insights on the behavioral bottlenecks we believe are contributing to two of our first projects in this space: reducing drop-off between application and matriculation at LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC), and increasing retention at San Francisco State University (SF State). We also talked about the interventions we’ve designed to help mitigate these bottlenecks.

There’s a full recording of the webinar below, but for those of you looking for a quick read here’s a summary of the key insights:

LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC)

The period between applying for college and actually matriculating is a significant drop-off point in students’ educational journey. At LAGCC, 60% of students who take their placement test don’t end up attending classes when the semester starts. ideas42 worked with LAGCC to diagnose and address the behavioral bottlenecks behind this drop-off.

Drawing on previous studies and our observations of the registration process, we hypothesized that seemingly small obstacles could lead incoming students to fail to complete the necessary tasks on time, and ultimately to drop out of the process. These administrative hurdles are exacerbated by the fact that the incoming students encounter negative feedback about uncompleted tasks, but are rarely given positive feedback or progress updates when they complete steps.

To help overcome these bottlenecks, ideas42 redesigned LAGCC’s communications to incoming students. The new messaging is designed to make the enrollment process easier to navigate. It is also more positive and welcoming in tone and gives students the opportunity to identify as part of LAGCC community earlier in the registration process.

San Francisco State University (SF State)

Over 40% of students at four-year institutions across the US fail to complete a degree within 6 years. At SF State, almost half of student attrition occurs in the first year of college, and a third of that even before the first semester is over. ideas42 worked with SF State to find and address the key behavioral bottlenecks impeding student retention.

We identified a series of academic, administrative, and social obstacles that students face as early as their first few weeks on campus. Struggling to deal with these obstacles can activate students’ negative identities and lead them to doubt their own abilities, ultimately causing them to question their belonging in a college environment and limiting their ability to cope.

Drawing on research from leading academics such as Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen, we designed an intervention to help reframe students’ narratives about their struggles. The intervention presented a video and survey to students on SF State’s web platform, and will deliver a stream of email and SMS messaging throughout the year to change the norms around the freshman year experience and to encourage a positive self-appraisal, which we hope will lead to a greater sense of personal efficacy. Initial indicators are promising – we have seen a 95% participation rate for the video and survey, as well as strong survey responses that suggests students were highly engaged by the intervention materials.

These projects are part of our ongoing work to promote postsecondary success using insights from behavioral economics. The interventions designed at LAGCC and SF State are currently being tested, and we’ll be publishing the results in 2015. ideas42 is also working with the Youth Policy Institute in Los Angeles to encourage more low-income students to apply to college and with Sinclair Community College in Ohio to promote earlier course registration as a step toward increasing on-time completion. This work is made possible with support from the Citi Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Keep an eye out for further insights from this work over the coming months.