Blog Post
Behavioral Science in Higher Education, Part 2

Behavioral Insights Related to Structural Barriers


Community colleges are a gateway to postsecondary degrees for many students, including those from low-income backgrounds and marginalized populations. Yet once students enter community college, they are faced with a host of complex administrative processes that can make it difficult to succeed. To address these challenges, 11 community colleges in New Jersey and two Historically Black Community Colleges (one in Alabama and one in Mississippi) with nearly 100 college staff members across 13 institutions joined the OnPath project led by MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS). The goal was to help community college students stay enrolled during the pandemic. Through a second phase of the OnPath project, occurring from 2022 to 2027, CABS is working to further refine and potentially implement the solutions developed in the first phase. 

The OnPath project facilitated a powerful combination of people and knowledge by bringing together college staff members with operational knowledge about administrative barriers, evidence from rigorous MDRC research about what helps students persist in college, and facilitators from CABS. Through a series of workshops, one-on-one coaching sessions, and evidence-based templates of messaging strategies, researchers collaborated with staff members to (1) develop student outreach campaigns that simplified registration information, connected students to available financial aid, and encouraged continuous enrollment based on prior rigorous evidence about what works to encourage enrollment; and (2) design new student-centered strategies to improve student persistence during the pandemic.

The insights described below are based on the ideas that teams from colleges that participated in OnPath identified as their top priorities combined with MDRC knowledge and evidence in these areas. During the first phase of the OnPath project, which spanned from 2020 to 2022, researchers identified three specific areas that created barriers for students—financial aid, admissions, and registration processes—and highlighted target areas that could improve the student experience.

Financial Aid Barriers Cause Major Roadblocks

Staff members relayed that the financial aid system was complicated, and students faced difficulties in filing applications because of conflicting deadlines, heavy documentation requirements, and a lack of assistance, among other issues. The main words used by staff members to describe the system were “complex,” “overwhelming,” and “confusing.” Staff members reported that students felt frustrated by the need to keep track of required information (such as tax documents) and perform certain functions (such as filling out financial aid forms). Students may not have had access to required information, such as tax records or parental income information, further complicating the completion of application forms. Staff members also noted how technology designed to make things easier can sometimes go wrong, thus causing additional hurdles. Simply put, these barriers took time away from learning and focusing on classwork.

Illustration of student navigating financial aid obstacles

Colleges discussed creating new introductory videos with personalized attachments that would provide targeted resources for students depending on their specific financial aid eligibility. For example, personalized information was provided for financial aid programs such as New Jersey Dreamers, New Jersey STARS, and documented students with undocumented parents. Staff members also noted that the process should feel easier for students and colleges should attempt to minimize students’ anxiety and fear of not understanding the application. They suggested acknowledging students when they do things correctly, instead of focusing on their errors. Staff members also discussed the importance of building relationships through simple actions like taking the time to personalize information. They recognized that the trust built between staff members and students can help students overcome these barriers.

Lost in an Admissions and Registration Maze

Staff members described the cumbersome documentation requirements that students need to fulfill before they can begin college, including providing test scores, transcripts, and vaccination records, and the complicated registration process. The registration process often has flexible deadlines, which makes the process feel less urgent. Once students have made it through the first semester, they may be confronted with registration holds and financial aid deadlines. If students have a hold on registration, they often do not know why it is there (but they will be blocked from registering for courses) and may be unsure of who to contact for assistance to resolve the hold. College staff members suggested several ideas to streamline the registration and advising processes.

Illustration of student feeling overwhelmed by paperwork

Improving Satisfactory Academic Progress Metrics and Procedures

The Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) system serves as an accountability mechanism for federal student aid by suspending the receipt of financial aid funds if students fail to meet certain academic benchmarks. Colleges raised the issue of a sizable number of students who have not maintained SAP and have received a “warning,” with some losing federal and state aid, and some being suspended from college. In previous studies, researchers found that up to a third of students have received a “warning” by the end of their first semester and half of these students did not re-enroll the following semester. Of the half who did re-enroll the following semester, only 2 percent had returned to good academic standing, while the rest remained in unsatisfactory standing. Colleges suggested changes to their protocols to improve academic progress metrics, which have implications for financial aid status and remaining enrolled. The colleges discussed both increasing the number of students who maintain SAP and the number of students who are restored to good academic standing after being placed on SAP warning, suspension, or probation. Ideas included leveraging early alert systems at colleges and using them to intervene quickly if a student is veering off track and changes to the appeals process once a student is placed on suspension.

MDRC will continue working with community colleges in the next phase of the OnPath project, using behavioral insights to design solutions that address barriers to persistence. Learn more about the strides made in the OnPath project in forthcoming posts about the second phase of the project.