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Scientific Secrets To Keep Kids In College

To be human is to be constantly at war between our lofty goals and our immediate impulses.

Future Me wants me to run five miles. Right Now Me wants a cookie.

Unfortunately, that totally understandable tendency is one factor that can stop people from completing their education:

  • Ninety-three percent of high school seniors say they intend to go to college, but 1 in 10 of those never apply.
  • Between 10 and 15 percent of those who are admitted never register for classes.
  • Of those who do show up, only 59 percent of four-year college freshmen, and just 29 percent of two-year college freshmen, actually get that diploma in a reasonable length of time.

An unusual organization wants to change all that — not by the typical means, with money or mentors, but by closing the gaps between students' intentions and their actions.

Ideas42 — a nonprofit research-into-action lab — designs policy interventions to help people make better decisions about their lives. Its primary method is through what's called "behavioral science" — applying insights from psychology and other social sciences to real world problems.

Their high-profile scientific advisors include Richard Thaler, behavioral economist and co-author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness ; and Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel Laureate and author of the book Thinking, Fast And Slow.

Education is one of several program areas at Ideas42, along with health, poverty and development, consumer finance, and sustainability.

Earlier this summer, the organization published the results of several large-scale, higher ed interventions. If students sometimes seem to be swimming upstream on the way to graduation, these interventions were designed to work like ladders for migrating salmon, boosting them on their way.

For example, at Arizona State University, the issue was getting returning students to file their Free Applications for Federal Student Aid on time.

In 2014, just 18 percent of ASU's students made the priority deadline of March 1. Ideas42 did what's called "behavioral diagnosis" and discovered that many students associate the FAFSA with applying for college — and didn't realize that it's due every year.

Many students also didn't understand that if you wait too long, the pot of available aid, grants and scholarships shrinks. And, assembling information for the FAFSA can be daunting, requiring students to ask their parents for tax and other personal information — something that's easy for a busy student to put off.

Ideas42 and ASU created a series of emails that went out over eight weeks, one each week, to tens of thousands of continuing students. The emails explained why the priority deadline was important, and broke the process down into manageable steps.

"Your parents will thank you," read one subject line. It went on to explain, "On average, students who file after March 1 receive HALF as much financial aid as those who file before."

For a subset of 22,000 students, their parents got reminder emails as well. This was unusual: The financial aid office didn't usually contact parents. The control group got what ASU had been doing all along: a single reminder email about four weeks before the priority deadline.

The results were dramatic. When both parents and students received emails, half of the students filled out their form by the priority deadline. And that effort paid off: Those students were awarded, on average, up to $643 more in free, no-strings-attached aid.

And best of all, it costs Arizona State University very little extra to send out those extra emails that resulted in more qualifying students getting the money they needed to return and complete college.

Melissa Pizzo, dean of admission and financial aid services at ASU, says her office replicated the Ideas42 FAFSA strategy for all students the following school year. And, they are exploring other ways that staying in better touch with parents can help improve retention. "We've seen how it's been helpful. We know students are happy to have their families help them."

Ideas42 did another FAFSA intervention, this one using text messages to high school seniors in the San Jose Unified School District in California. They reported a 22 percent increase in forms submitted and an 81 percent jump in the size of awards.

And financial decisionmaking isn't the only area they're looking at. Other interventions have used video testimonials to address students' sense of belonging at college.

Fishbane notes that these kinds of low-cost communications strategies aren't meant to stand in lieu of more substantive help for struggling students.

"There are lots of structural issues," like inadequate financial aid, the need for work-study jobs or childcare, that keep students from graduation. However, she says, "we also see areas that have to do with behavior," and that's exactly where Ideas42 believes it can help.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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