Menus Subscribe Search
college-books

(PHOTO: QUANG HO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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

• October 08, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: QUANG HO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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.

Eric Horowitz
Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher. He blogs at Psychology Today and is regular contributor to EdSurge. Follow him on Twitter @EricHorow.

More From Eric Horowitz

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.