Making Learning The Default Position

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New research presented at the American Economic Association conference suggests mentoring, even in the closing months of high school, can push students to continue their academic careers. Sarah Sparks writes in Education Week:

“In the study, ‘Late Interventions Matter Too,’ Dartmouth College economics professor Bruce Sacerdote and Scott Carrell, associate economics professor at the University of California-Davis paired high school seniors with Dartmouth students, who met weekly with the 12th graders until their college applications and financial aid had been completed and filed. Each participating 12th grader was also given $100 for taking part, and all their college application fees were paid.

‘We start working with kids in senior year, often as late as March,’ Sacerdote said. ‘Even at that late date, it turns out you can have an enormous impact on their college going.’

The college-going in the schools that implemented the program wasn’t bad to begin with—about 52 percent of graduating seniors. But women and recent immigrants of both sexes who participated in the mentoring were 24 percentage points more likely to attend college the following year than the average, and 12 percentage points more likely to do so than students who had expressed interest in the program but did not participate.

Interestingly, follow-up interviews with the high school students after graduation showed they did not consider the $100 bonus to have had any real influence on their college application process. The evidence mirrored their statements: a control group receiving only the bonus had no change in college-going. However, the students did value their time with the mentors, as well as the fact that the program paid all college application fees, which in many cases added up to more than the $100 bonus.

Mr. Sacerdote said mentors dedicated time to sessions that lasted from an hour and a half to four hours each week. Several students reported that their mentors also repeatedly encouraged—perhaps ‘nagged’ isn’t too strong a word?—the students to plow through the choices and paperwork associated with college, and then actually attend even when they felt intimidated by the prospect.

‘We’re just switching the default behavior,’ Mr. Sacerdote said. ‘We want to make it more costly for these kids to not go to college than to go to college.’

While much of the discussion around improving college attendance has focused on boosting students’ academic preparation for college, studies suggest that even when students are prepared to attend college, students still might need a nudge to apply and go. Interventions like this one suggest it’s never too late in a student’s high school career to give that nudge.”

That’s such a useful phrase—”switching the default behavior.” We do so many things by default, by taking the path of least resistance—even when the results are the opposite of what we want. We must find ways to make learning and achieving our default behaviors, easier to do than not.

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