Blog Post
Behavioral Science in Higher Education, Part 3

Possible Behavioral Solutions for Removing 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.

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 possible solutions described here are based on the ideas that teams from colleges that participated in in the first phase of OnPath came up with to improve the student experience. 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.

Financial Aid Barriers Cause Major Roadblocks

Staff members explained that students faced difficulties completing financial aid applications because of conflicting deadlines, heavy documentation requirements, and a lack of assistance, among other issues. For more insight on these barriers, see the previous blog post in this series.

Possible Solutions

AUTOMATE THE FREE APPLICATION FOR FEDERAL STUDENT AID (FAFSA) RENEWAL PROCESS by having colleges prepopulate applications with information they have on file.  Students would then only have to sign off on renewals. Although this would be more labor-intensive for financial aid offices, the Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment (EASE) project, that took place in 2017, tried a similar solution that was effective. EASE increased persistence from the spring term to the summer term through a messaging campaign that calculated aid amounts for students on their behalf. While it may be more work for colleges up front, this solution might cut down on work overall for financial aid offices and smooth the process for many students. 

TRY EXTENDING FINANCIAL AID ELIGIBILITY for two years. Completing the FAFSA every year is a cumbersome process, and research has shown that many students face difficulties completing the application because of financial, time, and psychological barriers. To address this problem, colleges could explore the possibility of extending eligibility so that students do not have to renew every year. This is a practice that has successfully worked in other domains like childcare, where policy changes have extended eligibility windows for applicants to use childcare vouchers.

Although colleges do not have the autonomy to extend eligibility, they could take proactive steps to demonstrate the potential benefits of this type of policy change. For example, financial aid offices and college data teams could analyze patterns in their financial aid data and indicate how different changes could impact students. Using available administrative data, researchers could demonstrate the patterns of changing eligibility and simulate the potential effects of extending eligibility to two years. Such data may support the theory that students’ financial circumstances are unlikely to change drastically enough from year to year to require annual refiling, though this would remain an option for students who have had a significant negative or positive change in income. 

Lost in an Admissions and Registration Maze 

Registration processes can be complicated and documentation requirements can be cumbersome. Staff members explained that students must provide test scores, transcripts, and vaccination records, among other documents, before they can begin college.

Possible Solutions

PREPOPULATE ACADEMIC PLANS or structured roadmaps that outline a student’s educational goals and the steps they need to take to achieve those goals. To help navigate the registration maze, staff members suggested creating one document that contains all of the pieces of a student’s academic plan. This would be complemented by a communications strategy with targeted reminders and easy-to-understand language that includes all aspects of the college processes the student would need to complete to graduate (for example, financial aid requirements, course registration processes, and advising requirements, among others). Another idea would be to provide students with prepopulated academic plans that outline which (and how many) courses they should take each semester. This could help smooth the registration process. Ideally, students could register for their second semester courses at the same time as their first semester (a concept known as year-round scheduling). Alternatively, students could be sent a list of courses for their second semester and be encouraged to register for them by a certain date. These types of solutions may signal to students that someone is looking out for them and understands their unique circumstances. 

REDUCE HOLDS. Colleges discussed chargeback processes, where students could still register for classes even if they owe money for past semesters. Students would then be charged after their registration is completed. Staff members also suggested action-based communications to students to make sure that minor holds do not prevent them from registering. Colleges considered developing materials (webpages and talking points) to provide details about the registration process so that all staff members have the information needed to resolve the hold and are better equipped to assist students.

Making Progress Toward Degree Completion 

The Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) system serves as an accountability mechanism for federal student aid by suspending financial aid funds if students fail to meet certain academic benchmarks. Students who have not maintained SAP receive a “warning,” with some losing federal and state aid, and some being suspended from college.

Possible Solutions 

EARLY ALERT. Staff members discussed the importance of connecting students to resources that can support them before they receive a SAP warning. Many at-risk students do not get connected to the academic and personal supports they need to maintain SAP. This could include increased faculty engagement with existing early alert systems to identify struggling students as soon as possible; using student-centered communication to connect struggling students to resources and to reinforce information about SAP requirements; developing a peer support system that supplements existing services and provides additional support to at-risk students to ensure they follow through with their requirements; and targeting actors throughout the system including students at risk for SAP warning, students who have received a warning, students who are on or have been on probation, and faculty and student services staff members. Behavioral strategies can strengthen the use of existing systems so that students at risk of receiving a warning in their first semester are connected to the supports they need more often, and actionable intervention plans are available for the students who are identified. 

REDESIGNING APPEALS. Once students are suspended for SAP, they are required to submit an appeal to be placed on probation and begin receiving financial aid again. One suggestion was to reduce the number of steps and time needed to receive approval for an appeal. Strategies to improve the appeals process could include streamlining notifications and using multiple modes to send reminders, simplifying the appeal application by prepopulating available fields, and providing a hotline to reach counseling or advising staff for help in drafting the appeal.

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.