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How Students Pick A College: Hidden Factors Impacting Their Choice

Poetry plays a big role at PelotonU, so it’s no wonder that “the root of the root” came to mind when writing this letter. Taken from an e.e. cummings poem, these words carry meaning for me far beyond its romantic context. It’s a mantra reminding me to dig deeper, especially when it comes to reasons why there seems to be a gap between someone’s expressed goal and their actual movement toward it.

While there are plenty of opportunities to practice that mantra at PelotonU — especially as a former coach — in many ways it has plagued us most with student recruitment. What is the root of the root for why students decide to pursue a degree?

In central Texas alone, 250,000 adults have some college but no degree, which is nearly 25% of the region’s workforce. In theory, these are folks who want a degree but haven’t had success in the traditional system (a soapbox for another letter); In theory, these are the learners for whom PelotonU is exactly the solution they’ve been seeking.

And yet, we’ve never, ever, ever had a waitlist.

For seven years, we’ve been trying to figure out why: why don’t students pick us? 

We’ve tried bus ads and Yelp comments, employer partnerships at values-aligned companies, texting every stop out at a local college persistence organization and buying more pizza in break rooms than we thought possible. We’ve positioned ourselves as an option for everyone or only a few; we’ve talked about affordability, speed, flexibility, our 5x results. And they all work a little bit, which had us stumped.

In the spring of 2020, ideas42 approached us and the KIPP Austin alumni team and recommended working together on interviews to dig into how students make decisions about post-secondary pathways.

What they uncovered — what they found, at the root of the root of the root — is a game-changer for us.

First, they learned PelotonU is incredibly well-designed from a program perspective. The access to coaches, the support with financial aid, and the serious flexibility were great matches for what students needed; however, the second thing they found were three key behavioral barriers that might be getting in the way of learners making the best-fit choice for pursuing a degree: overconfidence, chronic scarcity, and satisficing.

Barrier 1: Overconfidence. 

When deciding whether to continue their education after high school, interviewees primarily considered traditional colleges and tended to be overly optimistic about their likelihood of graduation with the limited supports these schools provided.

Don’t let the name of this pervasive behavioral barrier fool you; in this context, it doesn’t mean students were cocky. In behavioral science, the term more broadly represents the overestimation of one’s level of control or chance of success. When deciding whether to continue their education after high school, interviewees primarily considered traditional colleges and tended to be overly optimistic about their likelihood of graduation with the limited supports these schools provided.

Learners interviewed by ideas42 were mostly students of color, the first in their family to go to college, and entering colleges that historically graduate fewer than 20% of students like them (and frankly, more like 5%). Added to that are attainment rates significantly lower — 21% for Hispanic or Latine students, 35% for Black or African-American students — compared to nearly 50% for white students in Texas (Lumina Foundation).

Barrier 2: Chronic scarcity.

This barrier refers to the depletion of a student’s mental resources (attention, working memory, or energy) in contexts in which they experience a relative lack of resources such as money or time, leading to their heightened focus on the present at the expense of the future. Scarcity is about how we all have limited cognitive capacity, and when that capacity is overwhelmed or drained by a lack of resources, we often make worse decisions going forward. What’s unique about the context of poverty, however, is the chronic-ness of scarcity.

Many interviewees had previously enrolled in college but couldn’t persist to graduation; most said they got off-course because of significant financial constraints or life changes such as having kids or taking care of family members. Every single student reported extensive demands on their time and resources, like looking after an elderly parent or working multiple jobs to help keep family afloat. This chronic scarcity undoubtedly limits the cognitive capacity of hardworking students, no matter how motivated they might be to graduate.

Barrier 3: Satisficing.

Students’ previous experiences with college have made them cautious about committing to a program unless they believe it will allow them to balance school and life.

As opposed to maximizing, this behavioral pattern is one where we pick the first option that’s “good enough” in our book. We weigh choices based on a scale of acceptability of core requirements and choose the first one that crosses that threshold. Certain information is prioritized while others are ignored, so a full grasp of all the various factors is not required to make a decision.

Students’ previous experiences with college have made them cautious about committing to a program unless they believe it will allow them to balance school and life. In interviews, students shared that they weren’t building a list of potential programs and choosing the best among them, but rather selecting the first program that met their basic needs.

In many ways, satisficing is a reasonable approach; obtaining all the information needed to make a decision can be unrealistic. But the risk is that students could settle on a program that is not, ultimately, a great fit for them and thus diminishes their chance of success. Several interviewees told Ideas42 that they had been on the verge of choosing another program, but only at the last minute heard about PelotonU and decided to enroll there instead.


The good news is we have never been more clear on how prospective students approach the college enrollment (or re-enrollment) decision, and there’s still work to do.

In late February, leaders from hybrid colleges (like us) gathered virtually to share best practices and collaborate around our shared pain points, especially recruitment. With ideas42, we’ll engage in a series of co-design sessions to determine best practices for leveraging these insights in service of students — stay tuned for the results! Whether it’s PelotonU — or another hybrid college — that students end up choosing, the hope is that more learners end up finding options that will support them in actually achieving their goals.