By Katherine Flaschen and Ben Castleman

Less than half of adults in the United States have a postsecondary degree (an associate degree or higher). This trend creates significant consequences for people’s long-term economic security and well-being; college graduates are less likely to be underemployed and are more likely to have higher earnings than people without degrees. And as the unemployment rate continues to rise due to COVID-19, those without college degrees are likely to disproportionately suffer

During the Great Recession, colleges, especially two-year institutions, experienced dramatic increases in enrollment as people faced bleak job prospects. However, college completion rates fell, particularly among adult students. Understanding the challenges that the millions of Americans now out of work face as they contemplate returning to college and completing a degree is imperative.

Fortunately, many states had already started to prioritize increasing degree attainment in recent years. Because community college systems are the country’s largest provider of postsecondary education, much of states’ education policy and programs have been directed toward them. For example, Tennessee Reconnect, launched in 2018, is a scholarship that offers adults without a postsecondary degree the opportunity to attend a community college tuition-free. After its launch, adult enrollment at Tennessee community colleges increased by 18% over the prior year. 

Inarguably, Tennessee Reconnect has made a difference for many students. At the same time, thousands of residents who were eligible for the scholarship didn’t apply. And only half of students who successfully received Reconnect funding in their first year reapplied for the funding and returned to college for their second year. Free college sounds like a no-brainer from the student perspective. So why didn’t more students take advantage of this opportunity? 

Behavioral science sheds light on why free tuition may not be enough to help more people get a degree—and suggests solutions to strengthen state programs and initiatives so they can impact even more people. These additional supports may be more important now than ever given the myriad of COVID-related challenges students may confront as they work to finish college. To explore behaviorally informed solutions to increase adult college re-enrollment and completion, we partnered with the University of Virginia’s Nudge4 Solutions Lab and the community college systems of Virginia, Tennessee, and Indiana. 

In our partnership with these state agencies, we’ve gathered valuable insights about how to help states leverage behavioral science to improve their residents’ postsecondary outcomes. 

  1. Change requires collaboration among multiple stakeholders. There are several layers of stakeholders within community college systems. The Virginia Community College System (VCCS), for example, oversees a network of 23 community colleges, but each one operates fairly autonomously. Therefore, it’s crucial to get buy-in from individual institutions in order to incorporate behavioral science into their processes. Further, these partners can help assess both the potential impact and feasibility of the behaviorally informed solutions we generate by providing information on what’s already been tried, what resources are available, and what upcoming initiatives may facilitate or hinder implementation.
  2. Getting in touch with hard-to-reach potential students takes creativity and coordination. Improving states’ educational attainment rates necessitates reaching students who are not currently enrolled in college, which is tricky. For our work in Virginia, VCCS identified a list of students who met criteria we had outlined, and several colleges pulled the latest contact information for these students (who had left school before graduating) and conducted outreach. This enabled us to follow up with interviews to learn more about their educational experiences. It took a team effort to find and connect with students who could benefit most from behavioral interventions.
  3. Behavioral science offers novel perspectives. Those who work in education–at colleges, or at the policy level–may immediately think of the financial and career benefits of a degree when they consider the benefits of pursuing higher education. However, we learned that to prospective students, such benefits are often ambiguous or unknown. Instead, we found that students seem to be motivated by more intrinsic reasons for completing their degree, such as the personal accomplishment it represents. This behavioral insight has the ability to affect education policy and programmatic implementation differently than how states might have approached this otherwise. For example, in encouraging students who have left college to re-enroll, especially in increasingly important programs like health care or emergency response, messaging could prompt students to think about how good it will feel to help their communities during this crisis.

This latest partnership builds on a strong history of collaboration between ideas42 and Nudge4 to employ behavioral science to improve postsecondary degree attainment. Beginning in 2015, we worked together with the Common Application to implement a national nudging campaign aimed at increasing FAFSA completion among prospective college students. Subsequently, we partnered again to develop a practitioner’s guide to developing evidence-based behavioral innovations to improve college access and success.

We hope these recent lessons will inform similar partnerships among community colleges and behavioral scientists in the future. We think behavioral insights can open up new avenues for states to address their policy objectives, such as Tennessee’s initiative Drive to 55, which aims to achieve a postsecondary degree attainment rate of 55% among its adult population by 2025.

Expect more insights from this collaboration: our work in these three states is ongoing. The goal for these partnerships is to pilot interventions based on behavioral insights during the 2020-2021 academic year. In the meantime, you can also read our guide on nudge strategies to support student success in online learning, and stay tuned for new results and insights about helping more people reach their postsecondary goals.

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