Social psychologist Devon Price’s article Laziness Does Not Exist is the article that I haven’t been able to stop revisiting, again and again.
Price, who teaches psychology at the Loyola University of Chicago, observes that when a student doesn’t complete assignments on time, teachers may infer that the student is lazy, unintelligent, or disorganized. But based on Price’s social psychology research, a person’s behavior is far more likely to result from situational constraints than personality traits or intelligence. So when students begin to struggle in their course, Price asks, what barriers are they encountering that I cannot see?
They found that procrastination often results from a desire to do well, but without knowledge of what the first steps are. As someone who has struggled with executive functioning skills at different times in my life, this really resonated. Every time a project slipped dangerously close to a deadline, I felt trapped between the standard I want to achieve and the lack of knowledge of how to get there.
So much of what we’re expected to complete in school is not a function of a student’s intellect but a measure of their cultural capital. This was true for the first book report that I scrambled to finish, and it’s certainly true for college.
The hidden curriculum of higher ed
Higher education poses a maze of requirements for students to traverse, some clearly articulated, others less so. My EAB colleagues and I have taken to calling this phenomena the “hidden curriculum”. And too often, college doesn’t come with an instruction manual. But the hidden curriculum bears real consequences on students’ ability to enroll and stay in school. Pikes Peak Community College discovered this when they undertook a study to understand why a large portion of their admitted students ultimately did not enroll.
Like many community colleges, Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC) loses many students between when they receive their admissions notice and the first day of class (in this case, 62%). When administrators submitted a list of these students to the National Student Clearinghouse to see if they enrolled at other schools, they were shocked: nearly 90% failed to attend any other college.
When surveyed, these would-be students revealed they weren’t matriculating because they were confused about how they were going to pay for college. Many weren’t sure if they qualified for financial aid or if they had already missed the deadline. It’s not that these students weren’t motivated to figure it out. Instead, the steps they needed to take were unclear and difficult to access given their circumstances.
An email campaign dispels FAFSA myths
Director of Admissions Kevin Hudgens admits that PPCC hadn’t done much to communicate with students after they applied. So in 2017 when PPCC started work with EAB to reform their onboarding process, Hudgens launched an email campaign for admitted students. The campaign addressed the different misconceptions students had about financial aid, like “I wont qualify, or it’s not worth it.” The emails directed students to EAB’s Navigate Student platform, which provided instructions for how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The results were remarkable. Compared to the prior year, PPCC saw a 16% increase in the number of FAFSA submissions. This corresponded to 2,331 clicks to the FAFSA instruction link within Navigate Student.
I truly believe in Price’s charge for educators and education administrators: to discover and understand the situational barriers that are keeping a student from succeeding.
My own research examines the range of suboptimal choices college students make and the hidden motives of their behavior. If you’d like to learn more, I wrote a whitepaper that you can download here.