Leveraging behavioral insights to improve educational and workforce outcome

Associated Materials


Expanding Career Opportunities for Working Adults in California


  • More than 90 million Americans over 25, and nearly 11 million Californians, have completed high school but do not have a postsecondary credential.
  • Flexibly-paced online programs have the potential to help close this gap for adults left behind by traditional colleges and universities, but they can also create or amplify behavioral barriers to persistence and completion.
  • ideas42 is helping to integrate behavioral insights into the core of Calbright College, a new online community college in California, to address these behavioral challenges and keep more adult learners on track to receive industry-recognized certifications in high-growth fields.


The Opportunity

Nationwide, nearly half of American adults believe they need additional education or training to advance professionally, but for many traditional colleges and universities are not a practical option. They are caring for children or parents, working one or more jobs, and often lack the financial cushion needed to absorb the costs of attending college. Without these educational opportunities, they may be unable to access the careers necessary to establish a stable foothold in a rapidly evolving economy. 

To address this gap in the higher education landscape, the state of California established Calbright College in 2018 as a new kind of community college designed specifically for working adults seeking to change careers, upskill, or re-skill. Fully online, flexibly-paced, and currently free to California residents, Calbright allows students to work toward an industry-recognized certificate wherever and whenever is best for them, and its competency-based model means student progress is based on mastery of coursework, not hours spent in a classroom.

Calbright has grown considerably since its inception – with 2,712 enrolled students and 276 certificates awarded as of June 2023 – and continues to open new programs that give adult learners entry points to high-growth industries. In addition to addressing structural barriers to access, Calbright aims to ensure its programs maximize student engagement and success by integrating behavioral insights into subtler, sometimes surprising barriers that can throw learners off track. For example, while eliminating fixed terms and deadlines can offer a student parent much-needed flexibility, it can also create ambiguity and confusion around how they should pace their progress through the program. Similarly, although asynchronous online learning makes education much more accessible for working adults, it can also make it difficult to form a sense of belonging and community closely associated with persistence and completion without intentional design.


Our Approach

For over a decade, ideas42’s postsecondary education team has been working to identify the behavioral barriers impeding student success, and then design and implement interventions to help students overcome those obstacles. More recently, we’ve tackled the challenges of supporting students in online learning and helping more adult learners (re)enroll in college

Building on this foundation, ideas42 is partnering with Calbright and the UC Irvine School of Education to apply behavioral and data science strategies to improve educational and career outcomes for Calbright’s target population of working adult learners. In close collaboration with ideas42 academic affiliate Ben Castleman at the University of Virginia, we’re driving several activities to build a portfolio of rapid-cycle innovation around Calbright’s model of student success:

  • We’re guiding cross-functional Calbright teams through a series of behavioral design sprints that scaffold the application of behavioral insights to the development of testable student success solutions. Over the course of 10 to 12 weeks, teams of ideas42 and Calbright staff jointly translate high-level goals into concrete opportunities to leverage behavioral design, then conduct a behavioral mapping to hypothesize barriers holding students back, and ultimately generate targeted design concepts to help students overcome those barriers. These design concepts are then piloted through rapid-cycle exploratory evaluations that generate evidence on promising practices that can be scaled across Calbright programs and inform broader lessons for the field.
  • We’re also building Calbright’s internal capacity leveraging behavioral science-based frameworks, tools, and tactics through a series of behavioral insights labs. Built around a three-stage behavioral model that focuses first on capturing student attention, then building student intention, and finally facilitating student action, these highly-participatory sessions involve a mix of expert-led presentations and participant-driven activities that guide the Calbright team in applying behavioral insights to their student outreach and engagement efforts.
  • A final focus of our work has been a behavioral communications review that assesses Calbright’s student-facing text and email messaging through a behavioral science lens, with the dual goal of recommending changes based on behavioral best practices and identifying opportunities for iterative improvement through A/B testing. This focus on communications is particularly important at Calbright given how closely intertwined these digital channels are with student learning and engagement in a fully online learning environment.



Too many working adults seeking new career trajectories fall through the cracks of the U.S. higher education system. New models like Calbright’s can help plug these gaps by eliminating structural barriers that keep traditional colleges and universities out of reach for millions of Americans. By leveraging behavioral insights across the student journey through a process of rapid-cycle design and testing, ideas42’s partnership with Calbright aims to generate fresh evidence on promising new practices that can boost educational and workforce outcomes for adult learners at Calbright and beyond.

Follow @ideas42 on Twitter to learn more about our work. Contact us at education@ideas.org with questions.