The Road Back to College Is Paved with Barriers, but Behavioral Science Can Help Smooth the Way

Thirty-six million Americans have earned college credits but don’t have a degree to show for it. Put another way, over 20 percent of working-age adults started college but never finished. This number continues to grow—more than 6.5 million people joined this group over the last five years alone. The lack of a college degree is associated with lower rates of full employment and lower earnings, worse health and less stable marriages, and a greater number of “deaths of despair,” such as suicide, drug overdoses, and drink-induced liver disease. And now with a recession upon us, those without college degrees will disproportionately suffer

We know that there are concrete, lifelong benefits to earning a college degree. So why do so many students who started out on that path fail to obtain one?

Take Jane (name changed for her privacy), who is just two classes away from finishing her associate degree. The last time she was in college she enjoyed it—she liked her instructors and had figured out a schedule of evening classes that worked for her. But when she got sick with Lyme disease and was hospitalized for six months, she had to drop out. After being out of school for several years, she reapplied to her local community college. Despite reapplying, Jane ended up not enrolling because she had to focus her attention on her oldest daughter, who had decided that she wanted to go to college herself. Recently, Jane has been thinking about returning to school to finish her remaining classes in biology and statistics (the latter of which she is dreading a bit) but is not sure that completing her degree would have a positive impact on her career and does not want to sacrifice time spent with her youngest daughter.

We know that there are concrete, lifelong benefits to earning a college degree. So why do so many students who started out on that path fail to obtain one?

Fortunately, many states are creating policies to help more people earn degrees. Such policies have focused largely on community college systems, which enroll over 40 percent of all students pursuing postsecondary education, as well as a disproportionate share of minority, low-income, and first-generation students. For example, Tennessee has set the goal of 55 percent of its residents having a college degree or certificate by 2025, up from 32 percent in 2014. In Florida, former students were offered a one-course tuition waiver to resume their education. In addition to removing financial hurdles, other states have opted for informational campaigns to increase adults’ awareness of their options to finish a degree.   

Yet there is little evidence thus far that these efforts are leading to meaningful increases in the share of adults with some college but no degree (SCND) actually re-enrolling and graduating. While financial strain and lack of knowledge may indeed be barriers for some students, there are plenty of other significant hurdles on the path to graduation. For example, the Florida tuition waiver only led to a modest increase in re-enrollment, with no evidence to date as to whether these students were able to graduate after returning. Other similar interventions, such as providing information about the re-enrollment process to prospective students, have had limited, if any, effect.

In order to create the most effective solutions, policymakers and educators need to better understand a fundamental question: Why do so many of these students, many of whom have already made substantial progress toward their degree, fail to return to college and graduate?  

Why do so many of these students, many of whom have already made substantial progress toward their degree, fail to return to college and graduate?

Building on a history of collaboration, we—the University of Virginia’s Nudge4 Solutions Lab, founded and directed by Ben, and the behavioral design firm ideas42, where Katherine works as a senior associate—have joined forces and partnered with several state community college systems to answer this question. (Full disclosure: ideas42 is a Founding Partner of the Behavioral Scientist.) Because this population is so extensive, we focused our analysis on students who are not currently enrolled but would likely be successful were they to return (e.g., they had already completed about half of the credits needed to graduate and had maintained a satisfactory GPA while in college) and have indicated that they still want to earn a degree.

By analyzing detailed administrative records and conducting in-depth interviews with students like Jane, we identified six primary behavioral barriers to re-enrollment and degree attainment:

1. Not right now: Students think now is not a good time to return to school, or that a future semester would be a better time to do it. This population is extremely busy, often balancing numerous work and familial commitments. This heightens present bias, as returning to school requires sustaining large, immediate costs, like giving up wages or time with family, the latter of which was of particular concern to Jane.

2. No moment of choice: The opportunity to re-enroll does not present itself (or does not present itself at the right time) to students. Students are not being reminded of this opportunity in their daily lives, especially at critical times, such as before registration deadlines. As such, re-enrollment is not salient, or top-of-mind.

3. Not enough benefit: Students don’t perceive enough of a monetary or career benefit to earning an associate degree; such benefits may be ambiguous or unknown to them. Indeed, although some-college-no-degree students in Virginia overall make less money than graduates and are less likely to be employed, only 12 percent left a program of study at a Virginia community college with a large enough earnings gap between graduates and SCND students that we could identify a significant difference between them (although our ability to precisely estimate program-specific gaps is limited by small sample sizes within many of the programs we analyzed). While this was true for Jane, a silver lining here is that many students like Jane seem to be motivated by more intrinsic reasons for completing their degree, such as the accomplishment it represents.

4. Taking my time: Finishing a degree does not feel urgent. Jane, like many of the students we interviewed, had been pursuing a degree for over ten years. Instead, students view re-enrolling as an ongoing opportunity that is always there, and many students don’t have a specific term in mind by which they would like to complete their degree. Importantly, we know from behavioral science that people are more likely to achieve their goals when they are time bound (i.e., associated with a deadline).

5. Lack of support: Students are not receiving enough support as part of the re-enrollment process. While students can re-enroll online independently, seeing an advisor can lead to better outcomes, such as avoiding classes that don’t count toward their degree (which in turn helps people stay on track). Although advising services are available, students have to seek out these resources.

6. Saving the worst for last: Students frequently put off their most challenging classes, usually math, until the end. In Jane’s words, “I still have a statistics class I need to take and that’s kind of a deterrent … math classes have always been a thorn in my side.” This creates an additional psychological burden as students consider whether to return to college.

With a better understanding of the barriers preventing people who intend to finish their degree from following through, policymakers and colleges can create solutions that meaningfully meet students’ needs and help them re-enroll. As states across the country face rising unemployment rates, it’s critical to design and test interventions that address these behavioral barriers and help thousands of citizens who are out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis consider their options for going back to school.

As states across the country face rising unemployment rates, it’s critical to design and test interventions that address these behavioral barriers.

For example, colleges could provide monetary incentives to students for taking actions related to re-enrollment that overcome these barriers, such as speaking with an advisor, reviewing upcoming recommended courses and developing a course plan, and making an active choice about when to return to college. In addition, SCND students could be paired with current students to serve as peer mentors, both to provide support with the re-enrollment process and to hold them accountable for degree completion (especially if faced with difficult remaining classes). Community colleges could also encourage major employers of the SCND population in high-demand fields, like health care, to provide options for employees to finish their degree while working (e.g., via tuition reimbursement programs), translate degree attainment into concrete career returns, and identify representatives within the company, such as recent graduates, to promote re-enrollment and make it a more salient opportunity.

With tens of millions of adults with some college but no degree and little evidence to date of effective strategies to support re-enrollment and completion, understanding these behavioral barriers is essential. Interventions designed with these challenges in mind can help these prospective students achieve important educational and career goals.