Testing behavioral re-enrollment interventions

Helping More Adults (re)Enroll in College


  • More than 90 million adults in the United States lack a postsecondary credential.
  • In many instances, adults who wish to enroll in college face behavioral barriers to doing so.
  • Smart and low-cost behavioral designs can help address these behavioral challenges and get
    more adults into the college programs they seek.

The Challenge

For many people, earning a college degree translates to better quality of life. Compared to those with just a high school diploma, adults with a bachelor’s degree report higher income as well as greater job satisfaction and better health outcomes. And the benefits of a college degree go beyond the individual: a skilled, educated workforce is essential to maintain economically strong and secure communities. Yet across the United States, there are 90 million working aged adults who hold only a high school diploma, as well as 39 million adults who attended college but did not finish.

Nationwide, 20% of adults without a postsecondary degree say they intend to enroll in college but many of them never make it to the first day of class. Although some of these prospective adult students do not enroll for personal reasons, research shows there are many other subtle, sometimes surprising behavioral barriers that can interfere with the enrollment process. For example, many people who intend to enroll in college are derailed by seemingly small hassles – or “sludge” – in the enrollment process. It may be hard for them to understand how to fit college into their lives, they may be confused by the steps they need to take to enroll and, even if they know what to do, completing those enrollment steps may simply be too effortful.

Our Approach

For over a decade, ideas42’s post-secondary education team has been working to identify the behavioral barriers impeding student success, and to design and implement interventions to address those challenges. In recent years, we have used insights from behavioral science to research, design, implement, and test interventions aimed specifically at boosting adult enrollment, as well as to train others working on adult enrollment on the behavioral approach.

Among other things:

  • We have identified common behavioral barriers faced by potential adult learners and provided 35 high-level design ideas for addressing them in our Adult (re)Enrollment Design Guide.
  • We partnered with Fayetteville State University to design, implement, and test low-cost interventions that aim to boost enrollment among military-affiliated adults.
  • We worked with Lumina Foundation’s PACCE program to train over 100 community college leaders on the use of behavioral design to increase adult enrollment.
  • We created an Illustrated Guide to Enrollment, which shows what the enrollment process is like for a typical adult student, highlights behavioral challenges, and recommends design solutions.


The field of higher education is eager to better serve adult students. By using insights from behavioral science to understand what motivates adults to enroll, as well as the challenges that ultimately prevent them from following through on their intentions, we can help schools better design programs and supports (academic, financial, and non-financial) that will be attractive to adults, meet their needs, and help them overcome common barriers to enrollment. In so doing, we aim to improve the economic prospects of countless adults and their communities.

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