• Anahita Mahajan

How Behavioural Economics can help improve enrolment rates in government schools

What comes to our mind when we think of the Indian education system? A stark difference between public and private schools, children begging on the street instead of studying in school, the blundering state of government schools and much more. With over 300,000 child beggars in India, there are certainly a large number of people who should be studying in school but aren’t. Why?

If we try to find answers to this question leveraging behavioural economics, we get a fresh perspective. According to a UNESCO report given in 2016, India had approximately 15 lakh schools. This number was around three times more than that of China. With so many schools in our country, why don’t children avail its benefits? Perhaps the concept of decision paralysis plays a role. It tells us that when customers are faced with many options (even though that is what they usually ask for) they are unable to decide which one to choose and end up not deciding at all.

For example, in a study conducted by Gingras, I (2003), participants were asked to choose from an array of chocolates which looked either relatively uniform or diverse. It was found that the number of options led to a reduction in choice, and the participants were less satisfied with their choice overall.

This is because it may become cognitively difficult to assess the myriad number of features, costs and benefits. We get overwhelmed by the number of choices that we have. By this I don’t mean that we should reduce the number of schools in our country, instead we should bring them all to the same level. Doing so, can make the decision easier for parents, who need not worry about making assessments while already facing many cognitive demands. So, choosing from a uniform group of schools may lead to more enrolments, and more satisfaction as well.

This, of course, is not easy to implement. So, another way to increase our gross enrolment ratio could be nudging. And people can be nudged in a positive direction using the concept of loss aversion. According to NSSO research conducted in 2011, an illiterate person earns an average of Rs 4,575 per month whereas a person with education till middle school earns an average of Rs 6,233. This information can be framed in a way to nudge people to send their children to school. Instead of billboards and campaigns centered on the benefits of education they can be about the losses of not being educated. Mentioning a monetary loss per month in salaries if people are not educated till middle school can nudge parents to send their children to middle school. By making the potential loss stand out, people are more likely to pay attention to it and take it into consideration. This is because as prospect theory shows, we hate losing more than we like acquiring equivalent gains.

Behavioural economics concepts like loss aversion and decision paralysis can be very powerful tools to improve enrolment rates in our government schools. By using evidence-based behavioural insights, even the slightest of nudges and word-play can go a long way.