Staying on target for college: How innovation can improve the pipeline to higher education

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Article Highlights

  • Qualified students aren't going to college because of too much paperwork and procedural roadblocks.

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  • When procedural hurdles and information problems trip up qualified students, society misses out.

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  • We need innovative thinking to help qualified students navigate the pathway to higher ed without breaking the bank.

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Key Points

  • Academically qualified students with college aspirations often fail to make the jump to college because they are blocked by either procedural hurdles or common cognitive biases associated with making major decisions. Many enroll in low-quality options and fail to graduate, and some do not enroll at all.
  • When these hurdles stop students who would benefit from higher education, both the students and society miss out on the benefits of increased human capital.
  • Cutting-edge research shows how innovative thinking can help qualified students navigate the pathway to postsecondary education without breaking the bank: a short video can increase college aspirations in high school students, FAFSA filing by a tax preparer can significantly boost college enrollment, and sending students personalized information about their college options can help them choose a good one.

 

Executive Summary

Qualified students with college aspirations face a maze of tasks, deadlines, and paperwork that they must complete to access financial aid and a college education. Though the payoff for postsecondary education is large enough to justify the time and energy it takes to complete these tasks, many qualified students still fail to do so. In addition to procedural roadblocks, prospective students often suffer from common biases and cognitive limitations that can lead them to forgo opportunities to improve their human capital. The result is prospective students who, despite being prepared to do the work, do not complete the hurdles necessary to get to college in the first place.

Students are not entitled to a college education, and the pathway to college is designed to sort students according to their ability to succeed academically. But when procedural hurdles and information problems trip up qualified students, society misses out on the benefits of educated citizens. How can we increase the chances that students will not miss out on purely procedural grounds? We argue that policymakers and entrepreneurs should take a page from other sectors of public policy and the economy, where innovation has lowered transaction costs and empowered consumers to make good choices. In everything from tax filing to buying airline tickets to learning new content and skills, advances in technology and data collection have made it easier to inform individuals about their options, reduced the labor necessary to sort through those options, and created new opportunities to guide consumers through complicated processes.

Researchers and entrepreneurs have begun to apply this logic to college enrollment. We explore promising innovations that are helping prospective students navigate the web of necessary tasks and summarize existing research on their effectiveness. We also highlight areas where policy reforms are needed to take existing ideas to scale and encourage more of the same kind of innovation.

We identify four areas in which leaders should reduce barriers to problem solving:

  1. Collect better data, and make those data available in a format that enables entrepreneurs to build solutions while also respecting privacy.
  2. Clarify data privacy policies to encourage responsible use.
  3. Streamline the process by which school districts partner with third-party providers.
  4. Provide incentives for schools and colleges to leverage innovation in a way that lowers costs and improves affordability.

 

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