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How Behavioral Science Could Improve College Access

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Many efforts to help disadvantaged students go to college have focused on providing better and simpler information. But as Ben Castleman explains in a new paper, a growing body of research on how people make decisions suggests that might not be enough. I spoke with Mr. Castleman, an acting assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, about how insights from behavioral science could be used to improve college access. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Q. What sparked your interest in using behavioral science to help students through the college-application process?

A. There’s been a lot of effort recently to improve the amount and quality of college information that’s available to students. There’s a lot of information, and it’s good, and it’s comprehensive. The puzzle is that we still see these high rates of mismatch, where students who did really well in high school aren’t applying to and aren’t attending schools that they would have a good chance of getting into that would really have the resources to support the students.

It’s not just about getting better information, or even more simplified information. We have to think about the process by which students and families make decisions and respond to information, and behavioral sciences have a lot to offer in terms of understanding that.

Q. Give an example or two of efforts to help students consider college and aid options that have already drawn on what we know from behavioral science.

A. There’s been a number of peer-mentor efforts. Where this connects behaviorally is that there’s a lot of research to say that, particularly in uncertain situations, people in general and adolescents in particular are really responsive to what they perceive as the norm behavior of their peers.

The second example is the text-messaging work that I did with Lindsay Page. The tendency to procrastinate is particularly pronounced among adolescents. There’s been a lot of neuroscience research here that’s just confirmed what parents have known for a long time—that adolescents are really responsive to things that are fun and pleasurable and immediate, and really put off things that are more complicated or that are longer-term considerations.

There may be lots of students who really do want to go to college, and plan to go to college, but when they have these complex tasks that they have to complete, put them off and put them off until it’s potentially too late. So sending students just a handful of text messages during the summer that prompt them to complete tasks in a timely fashion and/or to seek out help if they need assistance addresses this tendency.

Q. What does this research on other ways to help students mean about the role of college counselors?

A. In an ideal world every student would have access to high-quality college counseling. I don’t think it’s an accident that affluent families spend a lot of money to hire college consultants to guide students through the process. Choosing colleges, applying to colleges, and applying for financial aid are very complex processes that require, or at least benefit from, expert knowledge.

A lot of this work figuring out how we can best structure and get information to students is really to compensate for the fact that there’s a lot of kids who would benefit from high-quality college counseling, but at least right now as schools and society we don’t have the resources to provide.

Q. What are some lessons from behavioral science that haven’t been applied yet to the admissions/financial-aid context, but could be?

A. When a student is searching for colleges without guidance, there are so many factors to consider and so many thousands of colleges that it’s a very difficult set of information for a student to weigh and evaluate. So instead the student might simplify to say which is the school that allows me to be the closest to my girlfriend? Or which is the school that has the nicest dorms?

One way we could apply lessons from behavioral insights specifically in the context of college search is to build into the search engine the kind of college consulting that affluent families get. Because right now, just about every college-search tool expects that the student knows where to start. It assumes that the student knows how to structure their search—and college consultants don’t assume that about the middle- or upper-class students with whom they work.

If search tools could leverage technology to personalize and sequence information so that maybe at first students would enter their ZIP code and SAT scores, then the site could say, “Here are five schools near you with high graduation rates that are for most students pretty affordable. Do you want to start looking at these?” And from there the student progressively narrows. That kind of intentional structuring and sequencing of information personalized to the kid avoids this problem of information overload and avoids the kid either not knowing which criteria to emphasize or choosing criteria that are disconnected from his or her potential for success.

Q. What else would you like to add?

A. I don’t think that we should see providing students with more proactively delivered and well-structured information as sufficient to help them make more-informed choices. We need to think about creative ways to help students connect to high-quality professional assistance. One that I’d love to see explored is this idea of using live-chat functions. In some ways, the public sector is unique in this assumption that students or families will be able to independently complete complex tasks. Companies that are out to make money don’t make that assumption. In fact, they try very hard to help people purchase products, and one of the ways that a lot of them do it is by making it really easy for consumers to get help through these live-chat functions. We should co-opt what we observe the for-profit sector doing and apply it to help students and families through complex decisions.

Mr. Castleman’s paper, ”Prompts, Personalization, and Pay-Offs: Strategies to Improve the Design and Delivery of College and Financial-Aid Information,” is forthcoming as part of a project, Financial Aid and Student Success: Behavioral Insights, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and directed by Sandy Baum, Robert Shireman, and Patricia Steele.

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