Tools to improve school selection & matriculation

College Pre-Admissions: Making it to Day One

According to the US Census Bureau, college graduates earn almost twice as much as those with only a high school diploma over the course of their lifetime and are significantly more likely to be employed. This means they are better able to support themselves and their families. A larger pool of college graduates also helps to strengthen the U.S. economy by increasing tax returns and consumer spending power and building a more educated workforce that can compete on a global stage.

But the reality is that not everyone finds it easy to make the most out of opportunities in higher education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, less than half of low-income high school seniors who intend to go to college end up enrolling, and just one in 12 graduate with a degree by age 24. Less than 60% of full-time students graduate from four-year colleges within six years, and less than 30% graduate from community colleges within three years.

This section of our larger portfolio of postsecondary work, detailed in the report Nudging for Success, focuses on applying behavioral science in the pre-admission phase.


Research shows that students at more selective schools with ample resources earn degrees faster, are more likely to graduate, and earn more money after graduation. But half of all low-income students undermatch, choosing a college below their academic abilities and forgoing these advantages. Furthermore, once students apply to a college (no matter the match), a troubling number of them fail to actually attend their first semester.

Behavioral science has demonstrated repeatedly that when faced with complex (or too many) choices we often fail to choose altogether, and if we do choose we tend to rely on mental shortcuts. Given the difficulty in narrowing choices down from thousands of colleges along many dimensions (academic quality, graduation rate, choices of major, etc.), students often fall back on shortcuts like proximity to home, perceptions of cost, and peer decisions or anecdotes.

Then the process of actually enrolling in school involves a series of deadlines, forms to be filled out and returned, and in-person events. Failing to complete even a single task can knock a student off-track for college, sometimes permanently. For low-income students balancing college enrollment with high school completion, summer employment, and a lack of familiarity with the process, the risk of falling off track is all too high.

Behaviorally informed approaches can help students apply to and enroll in high-quality schools that fit their preferences and academic level.

We created a “College Choice Tool” that helps students create a personalized list of schools that matches their academic abilities and preferences, as well as a “Behavioral Tips and Tricks Guide” for staff at the Youth Policy Institute to use in shaping students’ aspirations around higher education. Additionally, we explored the use of behavioral communications interventions with emails designed to encourage greater enrollment and interaction with institutions.

Behaviorally informed interventions at the very beginning of the college journey can help set students on a path to success.

Interested in learning more about our work applying behavioral science to the post-secondary education space? Reach out to us at or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.