On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.
Since 15 August, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.
This blog, the tenth in the series, features the chapter exploring a behavioural approach to widening participation, written by Susannah Hume, Principal Advisor and Head of Skills; and Eliza Selley, Associate Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team.
A behavioural approach to widening participation
Susannah Hume and Eliza Selley
Recent governments have put their weight behind a variety of policies to improve access to higher education for school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds. The removal of student number controls, increased availability of bursaries and support, and targeted information campaigns mean these students are now more likely to enter higher education in England than ever before. These initiatives have all been based, to some extent, on the expected utility theory of microeconomics, which predicts that when faced with a decision, individuals will select the option they expect to yield them the most benefit (or utility), given their preferences and constraints. Policymakers have aimed to alter the constraints under which young people are operating, to shift incentives so that higher education comes out as the best choice, and to address information gaps that may cause individuals to calculate the utility of their options incorrectly. These policies have been effective in raising university participation among disadvantaged young people.
However, participation among these groups is still lower than desirable. In 2016, 19.5 per cent of young students from the most disadvantaged areas in England entered higher education compared to 46.3 per cent in the most advantaged areas. There is evidence to suggest that these students are also less likely to apply to highly-selective universities than their more privileged counterparts, despite the fact that these institutions may offer better funding and support. While targeting students with more information about higher education can improve awareness, this approach only works properly if we believe all students will be able to access, interpret and act upon information effectively. There is clearly still a gap in participation that needs addressing.
The Behavioural Insights Team has pioneered a way of thinking differently about persistent policy challenges such as widening participation. Behavioural insights draws on economics, psychology, sociology and neuroscience to inform policies and approaches that can help people make better choices for themselves. This approach can shed light on a wide range of apparently irrational behaviours from poor saving habits to unhealthy lifestyles. It can also be applied to widening participation.
The concept of dual-system thinking underpins many behavioural insights. This theory, posited most famously by Daniel Kahneman, suggests that humans have two ways of approaching a decision: the intuitive and effortless (System 1), and the logical and effortful (System 2). Much public policy is premised on the assumption that people approach decisions primarily with System 2, but Kahneman argues that System 1 plays a much larger role in decision-making than people – and policymakers – have generally realised. By understanding when and how System 1 operates, we can start to design widening participation initiatives that work with the grain of human cognition.
System 1 uses rules of thumb, or heuristics, to simplify complex decisions, often providing helpful shortcuts, but sometimes resulting in sub-optimal choices. For example, the availability heuristic means that we tend to judge the likelihood of an event by how easily we can recall examples of it. This could mean that a young person who does not know anyone who has gone to university may underestimate their own chances of getting in, and therefore not even apply.
Another key behavioural phenomenon is known as present bias. We have a tendency to focus disproportionately on the present, and to act differently depending on whether the costs and benefits at stake are in the present or the future. This means we may fail to undertake an action with a large future benefit (like applying to university) because of a very small immediate cost (like filling out an application form). These heuristics, and others, discussed above can help explain why young people may disregard higher education in favour of alternatives that yield less benefit for them over the long run.
Behavioural insights can also help identify small factors that have big impacts on behaviour and to develop and test solutions. For example, studies have shown that removing very small frictions in important processes can have surprisingly large effects on behaviour. To help policymakers apply behavioural insights, we developed a framework that contains four basic principles: if you want to encourage a behaviour, make it ‘Easy’, ‘Attractive’, ‘Social’ and ‘Timely’ (EAST). The examples below illustrate the power of this approach.
Randomised controlled trials are considered the gold standard of evaluation, where feasible and ethical. We have run two large-scale randomised controlled trials to test ways of raising university aspirations. In the first, a relatable role model gave a talk explaining the experiential benefits of higher education. The talk was memorable and engaging – in other words, we made it ‘attractive’ – and using a role model from the same region made it ‘social’, so students could relate to the speaker’s route into higher education. The talk significantly increased the proportion of students stating they were interested in applying to university and were likely to attend. Conversely, providing financial information cards designed to improve students’ understanding of the costs and benefits of higher education reduced the proportion of students who were interested in university. This finding suggests activities which ‘speak to the heart’ may be more effective than some forms of information that ‘speak to the head’. This is just one of a range of strategies for making university more attractive which we plan to explore over coming years.
We also worked with the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education to run randomised controlled trials with over 11,000 students in 300 schools with lower than expected progression to university. A randomly-selected subgroup of A-Level students with good GCSE grades were sent letters written by university students from a similar background. As with the previous trial, we focused on making the letters attractive and social through personalisation, and by highlighting that someone like them was accepted into a selective university. Students who received a letter at home and at school were significantly more likely to apply to and enter a Russell Group university than other students. We estimate that 222 additional young people attended a Russell Group university as a result of this trial, at a cost of £45.05 per additional student. These studies demonstrate that light-touch, low-cost interventions using relatable messengers can be effective and efficient ways of raising aspirations.
There are also a number of studies in the US that focus on how to get low-income, high-achieving students to apply to the most selective universities. In one randomised controlled trial, thousands of students were provided with a semi-personalised package of information on the college application process and a $6 application fee-waiver. These students were significantly more likely to apply to, and be accepted at, selective colleges. Another strand of research from the US has focused on how to tackle the failure of college-bound students to appear at the start of term. A randomised controlled trial has shown that students who receive personalised text messages prompting them to complete enrolment tasks over the summer are significantly more likely to enrol at college. Over the last year, we have been working with King’s College London to test how a similar approach can be used to improve retention and outcomes for widening participation students once they arrive at university. This research demonstrates how ‘timely’ low-cost interventions which make it ‘easy’ for students to apply, arrive and succeed at university can effectively improve access and retention.
Opening up higher education as a market requires students to act rationally, to seek out and weigh up their options effectively. However, behavioural insights suggest there are certain predictable contexts where this is less likely and which may operate to prevent disadvantaged young people from getting to university. Work by ourselves and others has shown that there are many points where understanding the context in which higher education decisions are being made and seeking to make such progression easy, attractive, social and timely can help close the participation gap. Just providing information is not enough.
Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.