A recent report from the Brookings Institution has caused quite a controversy in the postsecondary education space. Authors Matt Chingos and Beth Akers presented new survey evidence suggesting that the economic impact of student loans nationwide may be less than the popular narrative indicates. David Leonhardt drills down into this topic in the New York Times’ The Upshot, but only last year theTimes was telling a different story, based on narrative accounts.

Why the contradiction? When stories and data contradict each other, it’s tempting to dismiss one in favor of the other. One person might dismiss the sympathetic anecdotes as insubstantial, while others note the many caveats attached to the analysis. But what is interesting in this case is that both tell a similar story about the root cause of many student loan defaults: the real crisis lies with students who go into debt, but leave college without a degree.

The “completion crisis” is a particular problem at community colleges, where the greatest numbers of low-income students begin their education. While it’s still preferable to obtain an associate’s degree than no postsecondary degree—to the tune of an average of $325,000 in a graduate’s lifetime, according to the NY Federal Reserve—lower completion rates make community college a riskier bet overall, particularly when loans are needed to cover rising living expenses and other everyday bills. As the Brookings study acknowledges, “among households with some college but no bachelor’s degree, the incidence of debt increased from 11 to 41 percent”.

So what is standing in the way of degree completion for low-income students? What we’ve found is that even when the financial incentives are there, students often have trouble navigating the hidden barriers in higher education. Evidence from the behavioral sciences teaches us that people—particularly those in situations of financial need or stress—don’t always respond to incentives because the choices and actions they must take along the way are influenced by their environment. Whether wrestling with course registration tools, facing unhelpful advisors or struggling to maintain satisfactory academic progress, students must overcome a myriad of obstacles if they want to see their initial investments in obtaining an education flower into a profitable degree. While the Brookings paper hints at “programs which exist but are in need of simplification and improvement,” the importance of these more subtle behavioral factors is often underestimated.

While the debate around student loan debt nationwide escalates, ideas42 is working to pilot behaviorally informed approaches that use touch points in the financial aid system to improve completion rates in postsecondary education. With funding from the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, we’re exploring opportunities to help low-income students at a community college near Philadelphia maintain satisfactory academic progress (a condition for financial aid) by providing them with tools to help them balance their class load, studying, and work schedules. At another community college in Florida, we’ll be helping students stay in school by better managing their financial aid refund checks throughout the semester. Our goal is to find concrete, low-cost and scalable solutions that can be implemented nationally for immediate impact.

“In America, higher education cannot be a luxury,” urged President Obama in 2012, highlighting the tragically high levels of debt many students incur on the path to obtaining a degree. That time spent in pursuit of postsecondary education is not just expensive, but also potentially unproductive if behavioral bottlenecks get in the way of degree completion, is the true challenge facing America’s neediest students. Pinpointing creative, effective ways to help those students make it to graduation day can help to ensure that both individuals and society benefit from the investment they are making.

ideas42 is currently working on a number of projects in the postsecondary space. For a closer look at some of our other projects aimed at improving postsecondary outcomes, click here and here