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Can We Send More Low-Income Students to College Just by Instilling a Sense Competence?

New research unravels the difficult relationship between motivation and choice. Without a feeling of competence, it turns out, the presence of choice can drive people away from a given task.


The College Board recently announced that it has begun mailing information packets to low-income students who score among the top 15 percent nationally on the SAT or PSAT. The packets include information about admissions, financial aid, and graduation rates, as well as fee waivers for six applications.

The root of the new initiative can be traced to two recent studies led by Stanford's Caroline Hoxby, who researches the economics of education. The first study found that high-achieving low-income students often fail to apply to the most selective colleges that are likely to admit them. And the second found that sending information packets to such students can partially alleviate the problem. Some question the degree to which this "college undermatch" is, in fact, a problem, but there is evidence that attending a more selective school decreases the chance of dropout and increases future earnings.

It's not hard to see why the packets are effective. Compared to their wealthier peers, low-income students have fewer college graduates in their families, and they're more likely to attend schools with inferior guidance departments or college admission resources. The result is that low-income students don’t have as good a sense of their options, and the packets help to make up for this deficit.

The process of opening a 401k often involves a booklet of 47 different funds from which to choose. If you have no investment experience, the combination of endless choice and no perceived competence may nudge you away from opening the account at all.

But might the packets do more than simply raise awareness of certain options? And if that's the case, is there something else we can do to nudge students toward better decisions? A new study from the University of Texas' Erika Patall suggests the answer is yes.

The aim of Patall's study was to bring some clarity to conflicting research about the impact of choice. In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz famously argued that having too many choices can make us unhappy, cause poor decision making, and harm motivation. But a 2010 meta-analysis from the University of Basel’s Benjamin Scheibehenne (PDF) called Schwartz’s conclusions into question, and Patall herself has found that choice can be beneficial if the circumstances are right. The only consensus seems to be that choice has different effects in different situations, and therefore more research is needed to delineate the specifics.

In the new study, Patall and her collaborators put the impact of choice under the microscope by examining how it was influenced by perceived competence. That is, does having the opportunity to make choices lead to different outcomes if you feel competent rather than incompetent with regard to the task at hand?

In an initial experiment participants recruited from Mechanical Turk were asked about their preferences for choice in a variety of hypothetical situations. The researchers found that participants were more likely to prefer choices in situations in which they had previously received positive performance feedback or felt competent because of prior experience. The results provided evidence of a relationship between competence and choice.

Three follow-up experiments dug deeper by examining how the interaction between competence and choice influenced the performance and motivation of college students in a word puzzle task. In each experiment participants were divided into two groups, one of which was allowed to choose certain elements of the task. Across the three experiments the choices included the type, subject, and difficulty level of the puzzle, and the way time was allotted (a two-minute maximum per puzzle for 10 puzzles, or 20 total minutes to be used in any way).

The experiments also varied in how the perception of competence was measured or manipulated. In the first, participants began by completing a sample word puzzle and then self-reporting competence. In the second, the measure was based on whether or not participants were assigned easy or difficult puzzles. And in the third, the researchers manipulated competence by requiring participants to take a verbal fluency test and then view feedback that randomly told them they had scored in the top or bottom 28 percent.

Across the experiments results suggested that when participants felt competent, choice increased motivation relative to situations with no choice. However, when participants did not feel competent, choice decreased motivation and had a negative impact on future intentions to engage in the activity. It would appear that without a feeling of competence, the presence of choice can drive people away from a given task.

It’s worth noting that the findings are limited to college students doing word puzzles. And the notion that people are more motivated to involve themselves in activities they think they're good at may seem relatively intuitive, but the detrimental impact of choice when it's not accompanied by competence has important implications for the college application process.

Hoxby's information packets are seen as useful because they make students aware of their options. Patall’s study shows that it’s also possible the packets help because they raise feelings of competence, thereby motivating students to dedicate more time and effort to the college application process. The takeaway is that organizations attempting to improve student-college matches should consider emphasizing the message that students are fully capable of conquering the process. It’s good to give people information about choices, but it’s better to also ensure that the information instills a sense of competence.

The interaction between choice and competence is also relevant to other decision-making domains. For example, the process of opening a 401k often involves a booklet of 47 different funds from which to choose. If you have no investment experience, the combination of endless choice and no perceived competence may nudge you away from opening the account at all. Research on financial education programs has been decidedly mixed, and perhaps one reason is that the newly acquired knowledge doesn’t always lead to perceived competence. If that’s the case, people may continue to avoid making potentially beneficial choices even though they “know” better.

None of this is to say that the importance of competence makes it easy to educate people about applying to college or saving for retirement. Perceptions of competence won't be useful if they’re combined with actual ignorance, and so the message that these domains are difficult and that it's necessary to educate oneself must be sent. But you don't want to make things seem so difficult that you prevent people from ever feeling sufficiently competent.

By illustrating the impact of competence, Patall’s study provides a glimpse at the power of education. Many of the best things in life—the college experience, safe investments, bizarre but tasty foods—emerge from situations riddled with choice. When a little bit of knowledge is enough to instill a sense of competence, the motivation to avoid those situations can melt away. The result is that you’re not merely acquiring a chunk of knowledge, you’re also gaining the benefits—a great education, a secure retirement, delicious dumplings—that come from a stronger motivation to engage in choice-heavy situations.

It's one thing to know that Dartmouth and Brown are good schools and that you could get into them. It's another thing to have the motivation to dive into the process that will get you there.