Fortunately, a growing set of behavioral strategies has emerged over the last several years that policy makers can leverage to help children like Mabel pursue the best education available to them. Mayors in every city should consider how they can do the following:
Simplify school information. An increasing number of towns and cities have some degree of school choice available to students and families. But information about available schools is often presented in thick, text-heavy booklets or through poorly-publicized websites. Several studies show that simplifying information about school choice and using visual cues, like star systems, to differentiate school quality can lead to families sending their children to better schools where they are more likely to be successful.
Ease entry into educational programs. In a similar vein, families often have to complete cumbersome applications to take advantage of educational resources or opportunities. Families also often have to pay upfront (and often unanticipated) fees to participate in programs, like taking a college entrance exam or attending college orientation,, and may not be aware that fee waivers are available. Policies that simplify or eliminate applications and fees can substantially increase program access. For example, in Maine, Illinois, and other states, students no longer have to independently register for the SAT or ACT, or pay a fee to take the exam; the tests are now mandatory for all students. These policies have substantially increased test taking and improved college-going rates.
Prompt students and families to make active choices. We all have the tendency to put off onerous tasks, like applying for financial aid, in favor of more immediate (and sometimes more pleasurable) pursuits. And the more we juggle in our daily lives, the less attention we have to devote to important decisions, like finding enriching summer opportunities for our children. As a result, however, we can miss important deadlines or opportunities that would have been available to us if we acted more quickly. A variety of studies have relied on communications strategies that effectively reach students and families, like text messaging, to prompt them to follow-through on important actions. In one study, a Columbia University researcher sent parents personalized information about assignments their child had not yet completed. In another study, researchers sent high school graduates text messages about tasks they had to complete in order to successfully matriculate at their intended college or university. In both cases, students experienced improved educational outcomes as a result of these nudges.
Attend to the social context of decision making. To paraphrase John Donne, no person is an island. Students’ academic performance can be affected by the social context around them. They may be worried about confirming a societal stereotype about a group with which they identify, or may question whether students “like them” belong at educational institutions they perceive to be the domain of students from different backgrounds. Interventions that address these anxieties—for instance, by encouraging students to reflect on their values as an individual, or by sharing narratives of older students who have successfully navigated transitions to new educational environments—can boost students’ resilience and lead to sustained gains in academic achievement.