Peer Pressure, Group Congruence, and Markers of IBM

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzes the role of peer pressure in affecting students' educational decisions, including their willingness to invest in their own educational attainment. Emily Cuddy and Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution wrote about this paper, highlighting some of the potential effects--positive and negative--of these peer influences on the educational aspirations and actions that, in turn, may significantly affect later attainment.

Among the findings form the field experiments reported in the paper are discoveries that students are significantly more likely to sign up for SAT preparation courses when they are in honors classes and significantly less likely when they are in non-honors classes. The same students, then, with the same educational abilities and aspirations, take different actions--markedly so--when they are in different social contexts.

As Cuddy and Reeves write, "To the extent that students feel pressure or fear social backlash from their peers, they adhere to prevailing social norms. This is not to say peer pressure is necessary bad. As this study shows, it depends entirely on the peer group. Marginal students may be pulled in either direction."

This quote--and the findings that informed it--were on our minds in Rhode Island this week, as we talked with stakeholders working on the state's Children's Savings Account policy, who are actively trying to determine the best ways to use incentives and other policy levers to activate the behaviors they want to encourage...and that they believe will correlate to improved educational attainment. Our understanding of Identity-Based Motivation suggests that group congruence--the extent to which I perceive that a given action (here, taking a SAT prep course; in Rhode Island, opening a CollegeBound Baby account and saving for my child's education) is consistent with what people like me do--is an important component of cultivating a college-saving identity, along with measures of the salience of college and the perception of saving as a strategy with which to confront associated difficulties. Universal, or nearly universal, CSAs have an advantage on the group congruence front, another reason why we're interested in exploring community-level effects of these across-the-board children's savings initiatives. Rhode Island, with its relatively small population, rapidly-increasing take-up rate, and interest in experimenting with outreach approaches, offers some very exciting opportunities to test these ideas.

But there's another aspect of this peer pressure equation with relevance to the CSA arena. As Cuddy and Reeves explain, "Culture, norms and peers matter a great deal for the design and implementation of policy. Policy-makers often assume that giving struggling students additional resources will help them succeed. But this study is a reminder that even providing a valuable service for free may not make much difference if students are reluctant to accept them in a public setting."

This may help to explain why some opt-in CSAs have struggled to enroll students and their families. Until the tipping point is reached, and a community identifies itself as a 'college-bound' or, ideally, a 'college-saving' culture, peer pressure may work against children's savings, not necessarily overtly, but by sending signals that serve to discourage the very act that may have seemed daunting to the individual in the first place. Of course, automatically enrolling children in accounts circumvents this process and may, then, help to activate of group congruence, as children look around the metaphorical--and literal--classrooms, conclude that everyone else is saving...and jump on that bandwagon, too.

AEDI will be working in the coming weeks to further translate these ideas from Identity-Based Motivation into indicators by which to judge CSAs' results, during the long period when children with accounts are still too young to observe direct effects on college enrollment and completion. How can we know when a given cohort has assumed a college-saving identity? And what CSA elements can help to foster it?

In other words, how can we make peer pressure work--for children, for parents, and for our shared futures?

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