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How to Leverage Fresh Starts to Support Enrollment and Persistence Growth

The EvoLLLution | How to Leverage Fresh Starts to Support Enrollment and Persistence Growth
Students who have dropped out or are lagging behind need motivation to finish their degrees. Institutions can help, not with platitudes, but by launching concrete Fresh Start programs.

Many students withdraw when they find themselves facing insurmountable debts, both financial and academic. Offering a fresh start could motivate them to finish their degree.

Every spring, I feel extra motivated to get in shape. The days grow longer, the snow melts away, and suddenly I’m ready to shed the excess pounds from winter’s hearty meals and delicious pies. For millions more, New Year’s Day is their inspiration to make resolutions of self-improvement. Others still use their birthday as a springboard to make new commitments. The point is that people are more motivated to change at certain times of the year, but why is that? And how can colleges leverage this psychology to help struggling students make a fresh start?

The Fresh Start Effect

According to Dr. Hengchen Dai, a behavioral economist at UCLA, people are more motivated to change at the beginning of an epoch, such as a year, a month or a week. For example:

  • After setting an important goal, people were over four times more likely to request a reminder on the first day of spring than the days around it.
  • People are more likely to Google “diet” on Mondays, on firsts of the month, and early in the year, as well as immediately following federal holidays.
  • College students are more likely to visit the gym on Mondays, on firsts, and early in the year, as well as after school breaks and birthdays (except for their 21st birthday, obviously).

This preference to begin personal goals at the start of an epoch can be downright illogical. Swiss dieters were given the opportunity to win a free membership to an online diet support platform. The membership would expire on November 30, no matter what, but applicants could choose whether to start on Aug. 25 or Sept. 1. Forty percent more people chose Sept. 1 even though that meant sacrificing a week of their prize for no good reason at all. The allure of the fresh start clouded their better judgment.

What makes these arbitrary markers so influential? According to Dr. Dai, when we enter a new epoch we focus less on the day-to-day minutiae of our lives, giving ourselves the opportunity to look at the big picture. During these rare moments, we can engage in long-term goal setting and planning. We also create a new “mental accounting period” in which our past mistakes—overeating, spending too much, not studying enough—are no longer relevant. A fresh start forgives our “debts” so that we can make progress on our goals with a balanced ledger. But as I discuss below, many colleges are forgiving more than just psychological debts in order to help struggling students get back on track to a degree.

Fresh Starts in Higher Education

One nice thing about college is that it’s full of potential fresh starts. A new semester, Spring Break, even a new chapter in class all present opportunities to motivate struggling students. But we needn’t passively wait for and hope students perceive these moments as a fresh start. Instead, we can actively and intentionally create the conditions for a fresh start. Five years ago, for example, over 140,000 service members needed to re-enroll in a federal savings program in order to maintain their automatic contributions. Email reminders that emphasized the new year as a time to make a fresh financial start increased re-enrollment one week later by over 5 percentage points compared to an email that simply included instructions.

One way in which colleges are giving students a fresh start is by forgiving their outstanding balances. Because even modest debts can prevent a thriving student from graduating, many colleges now offer micro-grants to students in good academic standing to keep them enrolled. For example, Georgia State’s Panther Retention Grants support over 2,000 students per year, more than 86% of whom go on to earn a degree. Colleges are also forgiving debts of previously enrolled students so that they can return. For example, the Warrior Way Back at Wayne State University in Michigan absolves returning students of debts less than $1,500 if they successfully complete 3 semesters’ worth of work. At minimal cost, these fresh starts can be life changing for the students who go on to graduate from college.

Students’ debts can also be academic, as in poor grades that may restrict their access to needed financial support, intended programs of study and career opportunities. Colleges are now forgiving these debts as well for students who merit a second chance at a degree. For example, Lorain County Community College in Ohio offers a “Fresh Start” for students who have taken an extended absence from school. These students can have prior grades expunged, offering them a chance to reboot their GPA before returning to college, so not to feel burdened by their past circumstances. Other examples of grade forgiveness come from Henry Ford Community College in Michigan and the Dallas County Community College District.

Taking Advantage of the Fresh Start Effect

College is a long journey filled with many obstacles, and we cannot expect the excitement a student feels at matriculation to carry them all the way through to graduation. While colleges are seeing positive outcomes through debt and grade forgiveness, they may underestimate the psychological impact of these fresh starts on students’ motivation. More colleges should consider implementing Fresh Start programs at their institutions and weigh the impact they could have for the success of their student population. Even outside of such initiatives, colleges should strategically employ the fresh start effect to motivate students’ persistence. A simple reframing of a college’s messaging around key temporal landmarks may be enough to see a noticeable increase in student enrollment and performance.

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Congdon, W. J., & Shankar, M. (2015). The White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team: Lessons learned from year one. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1(2), 77-86.

Dai, H., Milkman, K. M., & Riis, J. (2014). The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science60(10), 2563-2582.

Dai, H., Milkman, K. M., & Riis, J. (2015). Put your imperfections behinds you: Temporal landmarks spur goal initiation when they signal new beginnings. Psychological Science, 26(12), 1927-1936.


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