Applying Behavioral Science Can Give Students Momentum

Completing college is a challenge for all students. Keys to success may lie in behavioral science. Behavior science is the study of how people make decisions and act within a complex world where details matter. And often, it’s the little details that trip people up and impact their actions.

Nontraditional students face a different set of obstacles than traditional college students. Any one of three major areas – finances, finding their identity as a student, or conflicting roles and responsibilities – could be enough to undermine student success. For nontraditional students in a higher education program, whether it’s going back to school to complete a degree or adding a new degree, applying behavioral science principles can provide the momentum to succeed.

Financial obligations

Financing higher education is a challenge for nontraditional students. With obligations such as childcare for dependent children, food, housing, and transportation competing for financial resources, nontraditional students may be overwhelmed. Tuition assistance programs through employers can relieve much of this burden. Access to information about financial aid and help with the application process can be provided through financial counseling at schools or through a tuition assistance program. Awareness of solutions and help taking action may be all that nontraditional students need to be successful.

Identity as student or worker

Finding their identity as a student can be an obstacle for nontraditional students. Students whose education was interrupted for some reason may be concerned about going to school again. If they consider college on-campus, live in dorms, experience for high school grads, they may feel like they don’t fit it. However, in 2009 students age 25 and older were about 40 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students, and the National Center for Education statistics expects the number to be 43 percent by 2020.

Most nontraditional students will identify more with their jobs than their learning institution. Tuition assistance programs that outline career pathways and make employees aware of skills that the employer needs will create purpose, confidence and momentum that leads to completion.

Conflict of roles and responsibilities

Working adults have many responsibilities that conflict with educational pursuits such as work or being a caregiver for children or aging family members. Because of these, students need to enroll part time. In terms of behavioral science, part-time enrollment could be an obstacle to completion. However, tuition assistance and educational counseling that set a clear path to success and recommend continual enrollment term after term can overcome that obstacle.

For several reasons positive reinforcement can help nontraditional students succeed. There is research that suggests older students have higher levels of motivation and goal achievement compared to traditional students. This motivation to assume multiple responsibilities can come from the students’ need to maintain their employment and salaries that provide for them and their families. They have greater confidence and satisfaction when managing academic responsibilities, family and career.

Positive reinforcement that encourages working adults to complete or pursue additional higher education is important for all stakeholders. “The temporal structure of life — get your learning, then get your job — is no longer linear, but like so much in our world, looped. Like a shampoo-rinse-repeat cycle with an endless tank of hot water, the drench of “upskilling” has no foreseeable “off” spigot. What’s happening, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, is that employers want more hires who are not only “work-ready,” but also “training-ready, ready to learn more.”