Automatic Enrollment in College Helps Fight Inequality

To reduce inequality and racial injustice, a lot of people are interested in making college available to all. The most ambitious proposals would cost a great deal of money — and taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

Last week, the city of West Sacramento, California, did something fresh and creative — and cheap. It automatically admitted every one of its graduating high school seniors to a local two-year college, Sacramento City College.

Here are the first words of the letter received by each graduate: “Congratulations on your graduation and your acceptance to Sacramento City College!”

As Mayor Christopher Cabaldon put it, “Imagine no one in your family has ever gone to college, and you open up an envelope with a letter of admission.” He added that the new effort “will make it just as simple to go from high school to college as it is to go from kindergarten to first grade.”

By itself, automatic admission costs almost nothing. It’s just a letter. But there’s every reason to think it will have a real impact. For many students, it will make all the difference, just because of its automatic quality.

Mayor Cabaldon’s initiative builds on one of the most important findings in behavioral science: If you ask people whether they want to opt into something, you will get much lower participation rates than if you enroll them automatically, and ask them whether they want to opt out.