Solving College Mismatch By Instilling a Sense of Competence

My latest piece for Pacific Standard looks at how perceptions of competence can lead to better college enrollment outcomes. The backstory is that research has shown that high-achieving low-income students often fail to apply to selective colleges. A recent paper by Caroline Hoxby found that sending them information packets about their options can help solve the problem, but one unexplored issue is how students are affected by the massive amount of choice involved in the college application process. My article focuses is on new research by Erika Patall that suggests choice can be de-motivating if it’s not accompanied by a feeling of competence:

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.


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.

Read the whole thing!

The broader point is that the impact of education goes beyond simply knowing a new fragment of information. Possessing more knowledge can have a slew of motivational and behavioral consequences, most of which are positive.

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