Win a prize for simply applying to college

The barriers facing low-income young people with dreams of college aren’t limited to family money troubles, little encouragement of their ambitions, or lack of experienced mentors coaching them through the intricacies of college. The problem is that many don’t apply to college in the first place, including high achievers whose top grades and test scores give them a strong shot at selective universities that provide generous financial aid. When these talented strivers do apply, they often don’t aim high enough and end up at lower-performing, less supportive, and stingier colleges.

Credit: QuestBridge

One nonprofit group, QuestBridge, is seeking to change that calculus. Founded to shepherd more poor students into elite universities and help them succeed there, QuestBridge is generating buzz for its variety of innovative tactics. Its use of prizes in particular, to nudge students into applying to college and rewarding them for it, deserves a closer look. As The New York Times reported:

College admissions officers attribute the organization’s success to the simplicity of its approach to students. It avoids mind-numbingly complex talk of financial-aid forms and formulas that scare away so many low-income families (and frustrate so many middle-income families, like my own when I was applying to college). QuestBridge instead gives students a simple message: If you get in, you can go.

They plan to offer prizes in some cases to high school juniors, like a summer program or a free laptop, to persuade them to apply. To win the prize, the junior would need to fill out a detailed application, which could become the basis for his or her college application. The idea draws on social science research, which has shown that people often respond better to tangible, short-term incentives (a free laptop) than to complicated, longer-term ones (a college degree, which will improve your life and which you can afford). Two pilot programs started with donors — one focused on New Yorkers, one on low-income Jewish students — have had encouraging results, the McCulloughs say.

It’s a promising idea that’s worth a closer look by policymakers and higher education advocates working to put college in the reach of more poor families. Given the enormous economic and social benefits of a college degree, for individual students as well as the country as a whole, the modest upfront cost of scaling up such efforts are likely to be recouped quickly. For more information, see “Quest for Excellence Awards,” QuestBridge (2016); “‘A National Admissions Office’ for Low-Income Strivers,” The New York Times (2014); and “Key Findings from ‘The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students’,” Brookings Institution (2013).