Bribing Students to Take Fewer Courses

Imagine you hired someone on your campus to approach every student on campus who had a full credit load (let’s say 15 credits under the semester system).

The job of this person would be this: go up to the student a couple times a day and say “I will pay you $150 to drop one of your courses.”

If the person you assigned this task was any good, they would approach each student after their first session of the course. “Hey,” they’d say, “that teacher seems like they might be a bit of a dick. Just reminding you that if you drop one course, I’ll give you $150 dollars. Let me know!”

After your first seminar they’d be there. “Dude. Did you see that reading list? Where are you going to find the time?” They’d hold out the cash. “Look, you’re broke. Take the money. Drop the class.”

Next to the campus coffee stand, they’d put up the equivalent of a payday loan shop, but for dropping classes. As your students dug into their pockets trying to come up with some money for coffee their eyes would drift towards the payday loan shop. Walk over there, drop the class, and you’d have $150 bucks. You wouldn’t have to be scrounging pennies out of the couch to get your morning caffeine fix.

What if we did this in a systemic way, came up with a monetary incentive for students to drop classes, and adopted it nationally. What would happen to the national time to completion rates? To enrollment intensity?

Would it surprise you to know that you are doing this on your campus right now?

I was looking at the recent Hilton paper on educational outcomes and OER. What they find at the community college level is that use of open textbooks increases enrollment intensity in following semesters – students on average enroll in two more credits the following semester. And the hypothesized mechanism by which this happens is that money not spent by students on textbooks gets reinvested in tuition. This is huge for community colleges, because it means they can actually make more money on tuition by replacing textbook. OER not only pays for itself, but turns a profit.

For a variety of reasons, such effects are unlikely to carry over to the four-years, since most students their pay a fixed semester fee for between 12-18 credits. But as I started to think about it, I realized that enrollment intensity problem on four-year campuses could turn out to be just as great.

I remember, for example, being an undergraduate myself, and trying to decide whether to drop a class and take a 12 credit semester. And I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m pretty sure at that time textbook cost played a role. I was a student that had, at the time, barely enough money to do laundry at college, never mind socialize, and as I sat debating whether I wanted to sit through Professor Monotone’s class for a semester, I could help taking the textbook return money into account.

It wasn’t the main reason I ended up dropping classes my two sophomore semesters. But boy, it was a heck of a nudge. If we looked into this today would we find?

full time

The question is important, because the college completion problem is also an enrollment intensity problem. At four-year colleges, where most institutions charge no more for 18 credits than for 12, only about half of full-time students maintain sufficient credits to reach an on-time graduation. Anything which moves the needle on that, even by a small amount, has the potential to dramatically increase the number of students that graduate.

I’ve looked through the literature on DWIFs (drops, withdrawals, incomplete, fails) and OER, and I can’t find anything significant in a full-time four-year context. But I have to admit I’m curious. Given what we know about human behavior, there has to be *some* effect here — the question is just what sort of effect and how large. Hoping to look more into this at a later time.


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