Better grades through cash
Ideas: New programs offer incentives to motivates students to study.
On college campuses across the country, legions of students spend their weekends compulsively refreshing their e-mail inboxes, noshing on snacks, and maybe doing a month’s worth of laundry.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Shouldn’t they be studying? Well, sure. They just don’t want to.
That might be interpreted as a lack of self-control, or poorly ordered priorities. Leave it to two young people – Jeremy Gelbart, a senior at Queens College in New York, and Steven Wolf, a recent graduate – to declare such sloth a shortcoming of the education system.
“Grades are supposed to motivate students, but I would say more than half of people aren’t motivated by grades,” says Mr. Gelbart. The grading system is where some students “are trying to get approval.... But a lot of students aren’t looking for that.”
A better motivator, they say, is a little extra spending cash. Last month, the pair launched a website that Gelbart calls a “guilt-free pleasure.” Ultrinsic Motivator organizes competitions around courses at seven universities in the Northeast. Students each pay $22 to participate, $20 of which goes toward a pool of prize money. At the end of the course, all the players who earn an “A” receive an equal share of the pot. (Students who already have high GPAs may not enter.)
Programs that pay students for improved academic performance are sprouting across the country. Unlike Ultrinsic, most aim to bridge the so-called achievement gap that separates poor and minority students from their peers. The controversial initiatives have attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations, with the money dangled as a reward for getting better grades, attending afterschool tutoring, or scoring higher on standardized tests.
“I like to think of it as a book cover and a book. You might buy a book because of the way the cover looks, with the catchy phrases and the title,” says Jackie Cushman, who oversees one such program as head of the Learning Makes a Difference Foundation. “But it’s the intrinsic piece of it that gets you going long-term.”
There are many ways to approach such programs. While Ultrinsic’s opt-in format and element of risk stand out from the crowd, the new business offers a simple, real-world test of the basic learn-to-earn theory. The website even takes it name from the general principle: After “ulterior” motives kick-start studying, students will come to appreciate the “intrinsic” satisfaction of learning.
Public schools start writing checks
Several large school districts are testing the idea. A pilot program that started last fall at 20 Chicago high schools aims to change the habits of 5,000 freshmen. Participants receive a progress report showing their grades every five weeks. Those regular reviews earn $50 for each A the student receives, $35 for every B, and $20 per C.
Advocates of cash incentives say the programs – in the early going, at least – has worked.
Ms. Cushman’s foundation administered the Learn and Earn program to 16 eighth graders and 14 eleventh graders from disadvantaged schools in Fulton County, Ga., last year.
They received $8 an hour for attending four hours of afterschool math and science tutoring each week. The grades of participants improved, while those of their peers declined. Program members also became more excited about studying, Cushman says.
But the idea that ulterior motives consistently transition into intrinsic ones remains heavily disputed. Parents often characterize cash payments as shameless bribes, and academics point to studies suggesting that external motivation can have the opposite effect.