Helping individuals obtain a college or university education, regardless of background, remains a key priority for provincial and federal governments in Canada. More and more postsecondary education (PSE) students, however, struggle academically. While PSE enrolment has increased, completion rates have fallen. Within Canadian universities today, about 70 per cent of entering students eventually graduate, and some schools face completion rates of as low as 50 per cent. Average grades have also fallen or been inflated. Administrators’ efforts to reverse these trends by offering additional support services such as advising, time management workshops and remedial education have been generally unsuccessful. Another explanation for worsening academic performance is declining study time. Recent evidence shows a substantial fall in average study times among postsecondary students over the last four decades. Greater financial constraints on today’s students and an increased need to work part time may prevent them from spending more time on school. On the other hand, poor-performing students may simply see less need to achieve better grade performance because they perceive obtaining an undergraduate degree as the primary benefit from postsecondary education. Or it is possible that more PSE students are myopic. Students invest time and effort for uncertain returns that are not realized until many years later. This uncertainty may lead students to focus more on immediate gratification and present opportunities and spend less time on school work. Many stakeholders are interested in how to motivate students to overcome these difficulties and perform better in school.
The goal of the Opportunity Knocks (OK) Project was to effectively learn more about the potential for merit-based scholarships to provide both additional financial support and more motivation for improved academic performance. OK was a randomized field experiment that involved first year and second year students receiving financial aid in 2008/09 at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). Students on financial aid were chosen because monetary incentives should be more meaningful to them. The campus includes a diverse student body, most of whom commute from home. About ten thousand full-time students attend each year. All first year and second year students on financial aid were invited to participate in OK. Those selected by lottery into the treatment group were offered merit scholarships for obtaining course grades above 70 per cent, as well as regular peer advising services. More specifically, for each one-semester course (with a full course load being 5 courses worth 5 2.5 credits), students received $100 for obtaining a grade average of 70 per cent and $20 for each percentage point above 70 per cent. For example, a student receiving a grade of 76 per cent would have received $220. If a student received 76 per cent in all of her or his 10 courses over the school year (5 each semester), she or he would have received a total of $2,200 (equal to 10 × $220).
OK participants selected for treatment were also assigned a peer advisor of the same gender and were offered opportunities to engage in e-mail correspondence with that advisor to discuss academic matters, as well as issues arising from campus life. Peer advisors were enthusiastic, paid upper year students or recent graduates with successful academic achievement. Each peer advisor was assigned to 50 students who had been selected for the OK treatment program. Advisors were the key front-line service and information providers for OK participants. They proactively sent e-mails to advisees approximately once every two to three weeks, whether or not a response was acknowledged. These e-mails offered advice on upcoming academic events and workshops and on how to approach particular periods in the academic calendar such as midterms and finals. Advisors also provided information about the Opportunity Knocks scholarships, including payment schedules and reminders of how scholarships were calculated.