Why So Many Students Spurn $50/hour ($100K/year)

by Howard Gardner

In our large national study of higher education, we sought the participation of 1000 students (100 at each campus).  We proposed to interview students for about an hour, asking them a range of questions about their college experience. Standard practice in the field of interviewing is to pay students $20-25 an hour; if this were their yearly rate of compensation, it would add up to $40,000-$50,000 a year—a good salary for a college graduate these days. Because we had the funds and wanted to encourage wide participation from all demographies, we decided to pay students $50 for their participation; in addition, we promised to keep their responses anonymous. We thought that payment at an annual salary of $100,000 would be enticing compensation. Those who agreed to participate received payment via their choice of an Amazon gift card or a Donor’s Choose gift card (students in New York City could also choose a Metro gift card).

We were wrong! At half of our campuses, we had difficulty recruiting students to participate. We tried a variety of methods—emailing, posting fliers, advertising in on-line school newspapers, asking professors to mention the study in their classes, and tabling (with cookies and chocolate) at a few prime locations. On a few campuses, I actually held up $50 bills as students approached our direction! That ploy did not seem to work.

We pondered the unexpected resistance or lack of interest. We conjectured that perhaps students would feel guilty about receiving such a large honorarium, simply for responding to some questions, or that students do not believe that they would actually receive this compensation. We thought that if we emphasized the Donors Choose option—where they could instead designate a local classroom or school to donate the money—this option might make a difference. This philanthropic alternative did not do the trick either—in fact, only 7 students (6 freshmen and 1 senior—out of approximately 1000 students!) ever accepted this option. Surprisingly, one participant actually marked off the Donor’s Choose option, and then wrote in “Starbucks.” When we asked what he meant, the student indicated that he thought that he was the “donor” and that he could choose the source of his gift card!

As researchers, we naturally speculated about why it was so difficult to recruit participants. A number of hypotheses emerged:

  • Students are very busy and don’t have time or motivation to participate, even when they receive a hefty payment;
  • Students don’t look at their email, treating it as spam, and also ignore booths and other temporary structures on campus (but of course, if we were giving away free meals, that hypothesis might not obtain);
  • Students are asked all the time to participate in studies and so have developed resistance to such invitations;
  • Students are suspicious of research, and they don’t understand its purposes or its use;
  • Students don’t believe that they will actually receive the promised payment;
  • Students are ambivalent about connections to a prestigious school (Harvard), and perhaps if we had represented ourselves as coming from a local school, we would have had more success;

And so on.

Interested in students’ reasoning, we then decided to ask students, at the conclusion of the interview, why they had decided to participate. Most of them said that they wanted to have the money or needed to have the money—thus reinforcing our original motivation for offering $50 a shot. A small proportion said that they liked research, wanted to use the opportunity to reflect about their college experience or express gratitude to their college, had a beef that they wanted to air, and/or were interested in learning about Harvard.

Donning our research hats again, we thought about whether it might be possible—at least in principle—to come up with a more satisfying explanation for this unexpected state of affairs. If we had infinite time and/or resources, we could survey students under various conditions:

  • Vary compensation from $10/hour to $100/hour;
  • Compare methods of soliciting participation, from e-mail contacts, to written letters, to advertising in the school newspaper, to having personalized notes from their adviser; or
  • Present ourselves as representing different research groups (the college itself, a local college, a national surveying group, etc.); of course, since some of these descriptors would be deceptive, we would need to get approval of Harvard’s human subjects committee.

Let’s say that we simply had to give our best guess about the explanation. I think I would draw on my experience on urban campuses. On those campuses, we gave the students an option of a Metro card, worth $50. This turned out to be the most effective means of eliciting participation. And when we asked students why they craved the card, this was the most popular response: “If you gave me cash, I would just blow it off on beer or on food or on an item of clothing, which I didn’t need. But I must have the Metro card to get to and from school and work, and with this form of payment, I know that’s how my ‘payment’ will be used.”

Perhaps choice is the enemy of prudence—a Metro card is, in the end, a Metro card.

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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