The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 6, 2015

Promoting college access and success: It's not just about money

Diminishing the financial barriers to college access for low-income students has figured prominently on the nation’s agenda at least since the implementation of the federal Pell Grant program in 1972. The problems of paying for college are now getting even more attention, as rising prices create difficulties for many students and families.

But important as money is, many students face other hurdles, both in preparing for and enrolling in college and in succeeding once they get there. The disappointing reality is that less than 60 percent of all students who enroll in postsecondary institutions earn a degree or certificate within six years. Large gaps remain between the enrollment rates of low-income high school graduates and their more affluent peers, and among those who do get to college, completion rates are highly correlated with family background.

Improving these outcomes requires a financial commitment from federal and state governments and from colleges and universities, as well other private entities concerned with educational opportunity. But it also requires that government and institutions design policies and programs that encourage and support constructive decisions and behaviors among students, both before and during their college years.

The cognitive sciences and behavioral economics have a lot to add to this effort. We know that human beings do not always make the choices that are likely to serve them best in the long run and that simple changes in the way options are framed, in the way information is presented, and in incentive structures can make a big difference.

People tend to take the path of least resistance, going with the passive or “default” option rather than actively considering all of the alternatives. They respond more strongly to losing something they already have than to acquiring something similar. And they put off actions and decisions that are complicated.

The essays in our new book, Decision Making for Student Success: Behavioral Insights to Improve College Access and Persistence, focus on how this understanding of human behavior could change the environment in which students prepare for, enroll in, and progress through college.

For example, just making information about college options and financial aid available on web sites is not enough. Personalized information and prompts about required steps can generate surprisingly big changes in college-going behavior. Complexity in the student aid system prevents many students from ever applying and aid programs could be structured to encourage students to get through school more quickly. More students reach their goals when there are structured pathways to the desired degrees. Classrooms and student support systems could take advantage of knowledge about human responses to promote better study habits.

The current focus on college access, affordability, and completion is vital to the health of our nation. But the efforts to provide more information and more money will not be sufficient. We must think carefully about how to structure that information and funding, as well as colleges and the courses they offer, in ways that support students in setting and reaching their goals for better lives.

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