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Incentives Work for Pigeons. Can They Motivate American College Students?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How to improve the academic atmosphere of contemporary high schools and colleges.

The late Albert Shanker, when he was president of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed out the unfairness of blaming primary and secondary schools for the poor preparation of college freshmen in reading, writing, arithmetic, and other academic subjects; the colleges fail to provide incentives for students to learn them in the pre-college years. He said: "Whatever colleges pretend, their influence over high school standards and student achievement is decisive. Kids are just like adults: they will work to get what they want. If they know they have to work hard, listen in class and come to school every day with their homework done in order to get into college, they'll do that. If they know they can get by with less and still get into college, that is what they'll do."

Some high school students do respond to the incentive that Shanker talked about. Students passionately eager to be accepted by highly selective colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Swarthmore, Brown, Wesleyan, and MIT―or even to one of the 205 colleges that are moderately selective (rejecting 60 percent or more of their applicants for freshman admission)―bear Shanker out. Most high school students aiming at such institutions study diligently and compete to produce outstanding résumés. Such students also work to improve their chances for admission in other ways―they engage in extracurricular activities that they and their parents believe are likely to impress admissions officers, spend summers on internships, plot their strategies, and worry.

About $750 billion of guaranteed student loans have accumulated from past and current students, and estimates are that about 40 percent of these will eventually end in default.

But they are a tiny segment of the 18 million students currently enrolled in American colleges. Selective colleges have many more applicants for every place in the freshman class than they can accommodate, so they can set high admissions standards. Most of the 3,700 colleges and universities in the United States compete frantically with one another for students and could not unilaterally attempt to raise admissions standards lest they cannot fill their classes and dormitories, which would be a financial catastrophe for them.

To avoid this, they maintain admissions standards suitable for students who simply want to go to college and for whom almost any college will do. Such students don’t try to learn as much as they could learn. They have plenty of time to goof off: to cruise the malls, have sex with one another, and get drunk.

Shanker was half right. He was right that the majority of American adolescents want to go to college for all kinds of reasons: social, economic, athletic, sexual, even to get an education. He was right also that incentives work; students would study more conscientiously if that was needed to gain admission. He was mistaken in exaggerating the ability of the bulk of American colleges to motivate grade school and high school students to be more studious by manipulating admission requirements. They can’t impose stringent admission standards lest they go bankrupt. And students know how flabby admissions standards are at most American colleges. That is why even students with outstanding academic achievements not only apply to the selective colleges they yearn to attend but also to “reserve” colleges that they will attend faute de mieux if turned down by the selective colleges.

Could the right incentives motivate most students to learn enough in primary and secondary schools so that they are more ready to profit from a college education?

Consider what incentives can do by comparing students to pigeons (admittedly less complicated and cunning animals). More than a half century ago, Harvard Professor B.F. Skinner conducted experiments with pigeons, his favorite experimental animal. Skinner demonstrated that by using the right incentives he could induce pigeons to behave in ways that seem unpigeonlike. Could the right incentives motivate most students to learn enough in primary and secondary schools so that they are more ready to profit from a college education? Is there a functional equivalent of pigeon feed that can persuade students to study Shakespeare instead of pursuing more naturally pleasurable―and intellectually undemanding―activities that disengaged students currently engage in?

Yes, money. A market economy is good at using monetary incentives and disincentives to motivate human beings to do some things and refrain from others. For example, high salaries succeed in recruiting applicants even for jobs that are difficult, unpleasant, or dangerous. And the disincentive of fines for illegal parking enable the police to keep traffic flowing in crowded cities. What about using monetary incentives to encourage studiousness?

Actually American society already does so and has for a long time. National Merit Scholarships and other private scholarships use money as well as the prestige accompanying scholarships to promote serious educational achievement. The Department of Education’s Pell Grant program, enacted in 1972 to provide access to higher education for kids from low-income families, is a somewhat half-hearted way of using monetary incentives to pursue post-secondary education.

More than 6 million youngsters received Pell Grants in 2008-2009, costing taxpayers more than $18 billion for this recent academic year.

It is half-hearted because Pell Grants do not focus straightforwardly on motivating students to be ready for college. In the enacting federal legislation authorizing the grants―and in subsequent reenactments―Congress provided a monetary incentive only to help get admitted to college, not to motivate students receiving Pell Grants to benefit intellectually from a college education. Perhaps Congress was betting on "late bloomers," but there was no attempt to determine whether the late bloomers actually bloomed as students proceeded through college. Or perhaps Congress assumed, as Shanker did, that colleges could screen applicants for college readiness so that the enabling legislation need not provide for college readiness.

Subprime Students

Omitting academic screening for Pell Grant recipients was initially not a serious problem because Pell Grants started as a relatively modest program for 176,000 students from low-income families. In its first year, 1973-1974, the maximum student grant was $452 per year and the entire program cost only $48 million. Congress apparently did not anticipate how popular Pell Grants would become. More than 6 million youngsters received Pell Grants in 2008-2009, costing taxpayers more than $18 billion for this recent academic year.

The seemingly simple idea of providing access to higher education for kids from low-income families was actually quite complicated. Demonstrating financial need requires all students applying for grants to fill out a form in every institution every year: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Commission on Higher Education set up by former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings described the FAFSA form as "longer and more complicated than the federal tax return." Once students and their parents fill it out, students must mail it to a federal processing center where some experienced staff person evaluates it according to uniform standards. Then it is sent back to the college attended―or to be attended―by the student, indicating the extent of parental financial responsibility, how much the student is expected to earn during the summer, and how much the student is eligible for in a Pell Grant. The Department of Education entrusts colleges with the task of verifying the information that the student submitted on the FAFSA form by means of documents, such as the income tax returns of parents and a list of their assets, and with placing copies of these documents in their files.

In short, verifying the extent of economic disadvantage of students’ families―and consequently how large a Pell Grant can be―is no simple matter. Verifying financial need gave rise to two bureaucracies, one the in the Department of Education and another in college financial aid offices.

Verifying the extent of economic disadvantage of the families of students―and consequently how large a Pell Grant should be―is no simple matter.

A related Pell Grant problem not only undermined what might have been a monetary incentive for both high school and college students to study harder but also created a financial trap into which many lax students fell. Pell Grants never required substantial academic aptitude or achievement for high school seniors applying to college―or enrolled in college―in order to maintain eligibility. If some students goofed off at college, this wasted taxpayer money, assuming that the congressional intent for awarding Pell Grants had been to increase employment opportunities for college graduates, or at least to increase their knowledge. But individual Pell Grants were never large enough to cover the tuition and living costs of students at live-away colleges, much less graduate education, and the shortfall grew as college tuition and expenses rose. This shortfall led to a more pernicious problem. Rather than increase Pell Grants substantially―even the original cost, $48 million, seemed like substantial money in 1973, when only a few hundred thousand students were receiving them―Congress established subsidized loan programs for college students. Loans now constitute 70 percent of the Department of Education financial aid that undergraduates receive. And with the rising cost of college tuition and living expenses, the percentage of loans in total federal financial aid to students is rising.

The unintended consequence of financing higher education by means of loans rather than gifts is that they must eventually be repaid―with interest. They are even worse than sub-prime mortgages because no collateral underlies student loans except the prospect of jobs after graduation, the pay for which is presumably enhanced by education. Since Congress ignored the academic achievements and aptitudes of student borrowers in its student loan programs, just as it had before for Pell Grants, the unanticipated result was worse than wasted gifts. Marginal students unprepared for college by their pre-college educational experiences and who dropped out of college before graduating―or graduated without having learned enough to get jobs that would enable them to repay their loans―were trapped by loans they could not repay.

And personal bankruptcy did not relieve them of the liability for defaulted student loans. Nevertheless, many of these subprime students defaulted―with serious personal consequences for them and, concomitantly, a burden for American taxpayers. Recall that the loans are federally guaranteed. About $750 billion of guaranteed student loans have accumulated from past and current students, and estimates are that about 40 percent of these will eventually end in default. Recent high unemployment rates have worsened this problem.

State of Disgrace

Loans now constitute 70 percent of the Department of Education financial aid that undergraduates receive.

As if these developments didn’t jeopardize incentives for serious study enough, shortly before Congress authorized the Pell Grant program in 1972, states developed in the late 1960s misguided disincentive programs for studying to prepare for college. For instance, New Jersey enacted an “Educational Opportunity” grant program in 1968 that provides college scholarships for substandard educational performance in primary and secondary schools rather than for than for excellent performance. How did this happen and why? Forty years ago, in the wake of black riots in several New Jersey cities in the summer of 1967, a leading Democrat, Assemblyman Robert Wilentz, later the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and a leading Republican, Assemblyman Thomas Kean, later governor of New Jersey and then president of Drew University, sponsored the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Act of 1968. The Act provided grants for high school graduates from low-income families to help them attend college in New Jersey. Few anticipated the effect of a provision in the bill establishing an Educational Opportunity Board in the New Jersey Department of Higher Education to implement the Act. Almost immediately, the racially diverse board added a criterion for grants nowhere mentioned in the Act itself: "educational disadvantage." This was interpreted to mean, in the eligibility guidelines issued by the Educational Opportunity Board, that the students given grants must be academically underprepared for the New Jersey college of their choice in addition to being economically needy. In order to be eligible for an Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) grant―$500 for residential students and $350 for commuters at that time―the guidelines required that a student:

1. [has] not demonstrated a sufficient academic preparation to gain admission to an approved institution of higher education under its regular standards of admission…

2. [has] standard test scores...below the institutional norms; and

3. [has an] educational background [that] indicates a need for improvement of basic skills.

Apparently EOF guidelines assumed that students who perform inadequately on measures of academic achievement are victims of bad schools, poor teachers, racial prejudice, or all three―and therefore deserve college scholarships based on criteria other than traditional academic accomplishment. In some cases this explanation of poor performance is correct; in other cases it is due to students rejecting study at school as reflected in tardiness, truancy, and inattention in class. An empirical investigation could have tested the victimization assumption, but no test of the implicit assumption was ever conducted. Whatever the explanation of substandard college preparation, giving college scholarships for previous substandard academic performance does not give students an incentive to study conscientiously.

Whatever the explanation of substandard college preparation, giving college scholarships for previous substandard academic performance does not give students an incentive to study conscientiously.

The EOF program, which is still in operation, gives relatively small grants, but has a large impact on public colleges in New Jersey because the state bureaucracy requires public colleges to include in their freshman classes a substantial proportion of EOF grantees (10 percent). In order to meet this requirement, admission offices try to attract the best applicants they can find who are economically and educationally disadvantaged enough to satisfy the EOF guidelines. For example, one out of ten New Jersey residents admitted to the Rutgers School of Engineering―as in all public colleges―is expected to be an EOF special-admit student. Yet the College of Engineering has difficulty finding needy students who want to become engineers, who meet the EOF "educationally disadvantaged" criterion, and who also seem likely to succeed in a demanding engineering curriculum. Consequently the College of Engineering has a much higher dropout/flunkout rate for EOF students than for non-EOF students, despite a great deal of remedial work.

Other public colleges have lowered their grading standards in the face of bitter complaints from EOF students that the colleges were hypocritical to admit them and then to impose academic standards that they could not meet. Students enrolling at private colleges in New Jersey are also eligible for EOF grants, but these grants have much less impact on private colleges and universities, partly because the state does not mandate any minimum proportion of freshmen at its private colleges who must receive EOF grants and partly because the tuition at private colleges is so large compared to the size of EOF grants that the tail cannot wag the dog.

To return to my analogy between pigeons and students, targeting loans to college students who not only come from low-income families but who also are studious turns loan eligibility into an incentive to lay the groundwork for a college education. If students want to go to college, knowing that they will need loans as well as grants in order to finance a college education, and are aware that the loans will not be given to them unless they demonstrate college readiness by past and continuing good academic performance, many of them will make a greater effort to learn what they need to know in order to obtain these loans and to keep getting them.

The benefit would accrue not only to individual students. As a by-product of changing the criteria for student loans, the academic atmospheres of contemporary high schools and colleges would probably improve. Is it realistic to expect children to anticipate the ultimate consequences of too much childhood fun on college readiness? Maybe not fully, but children live with parents. That is why Japanese-American, Chinese-American, and Korean-American students are overrepresented in colleges; their parents stress from an early age that children must study conscientiously. Of course, students cannot choose their parents, and many parents―even affluent and well-educated ones―do not emphasize enough to their children that studying, not playing, is their major responsibility, or do not supervise homework to ensure it is done. Nevertheless, unless the majority of students differ from Skinner's pigeons in their responsiveness to incentives, using the incentive of access to college loans seems worth trying.

Jackson Toby, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers, is the author of a new book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America, which was supported by the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative. For this article, Toby drew upon a speech he delivered on April 7, 2010, at a luncheon at the University Club in New York City, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute's Center for the American University and Minding the Campus.

FURTHER READING: Aparna Mathur discusses how labor laws reduce education incentives in “Labor Laws Make Finding Work More Laborious,” Andrew Kelly examines “The Global University and the Future of Human Capital,” and Mark Schneider explains “How Bad Are Our Graduation Rates?” Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks outline “Leisure College, USA” while Kelly reviews “Those Accountability Rules for Student Loans.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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