College students are easily distracted.

They juggle classes, newfound independence, social lives, jobs, school work, career planning… the list goes on.

Add to that the distraction of today's technological age – smartphones and social media – and it can be a struggle to keep a student's attention for more than a few seconds.

When there is something important to convey to a college student, what is the best way to get their attention?

For instance, financial wellness and literacy in college students have improved academic performance and increased on-time graduation.1 It is a key to student success.

As such, colleges are using integrated financial wellness programs to help educate students on money matters.

But how do we increase student engagement with these programs while battling all the other distractions?

Some ideas could be advertising, social media, or campus-wide emails. But increasing student participation comes down to one key trick: incentives.

What are incentives?

Incentives are rewards used to motivate behavior in a person. Motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It is a person's drive to do something, regardless of any consequence or reward.

A person who is motivated intrinsically will participate in an activity simply because they enjoy it or get satisfaction from it. No reward or incentive is necessary.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is using outside factors to motivate behavior. This is what incentives are all about.

External motivators, rewards, and incentives become especially important when intrinsic motivation is not present.

For a behavior to begin and hopefully create new intrinsic motivation, an incentive must first be used.2

Types of Incentives

Incentives come in many forms.

The most common type of incentive is usually financial. Get $50 for completing this survey! Or $20 free when you open a bank account. Financial incentives work well for everyone, including college students.

One study found that financial incentives were listed as the top aspect of a program for youth mentors.3

Food is another good incentive for college students. It works well to increase attendance but can also be used in the form of gift cards.

Prizes work well as motivators too.

Some popular prizes among college-age students include tickets to sporting events or concerts or raffles for high-value objects like iPads.3

Using Incentives to Drive Student Engagement

As we have said, the average college student is faced with multiple distractions at every turn.

Engaging students in a college financial wellness program is challenging. Using incentives is the number one way to help.

Here are some tactics to consider:

Offer a financial incentive just for signing up

Start with the basics.

To bring students into your financial wellness program, set up a small monetary incentive that they receive as soon as they sign up.

This also helps to pique their interest and leaves them with a good impression of your program.

Use a point system to increase prize availability

Rather than only offering low-value prizes like t-shirts, consider using an ongoing point system.

This system can reward a user with points for completing various tasks. Five points for completing a financial self-assessment. Fifteen points for attending an educational webinar.

The point system helps students customize their prizes, which helps create an intrinsic motivator for participation.

Increase intrinsic motivation little by little

Like with the point system, use tactics to slowly increase students' intrinsic motivation to participate in the program.

One way to do this is to use games and leaderboards. A sense of competition is present in all humans and is an internal motivator for participation. Students will play simply because they want to win.

Increasing intrinsic motivation is key, as the external incentives should only be used sparingly. Research has shown that used too frequently, incentives will become the only reason for participation.

However, the goal is to use incentives to create the initial interest and then slowly reduce external incentives as participation becomes its own reward.3


There are a myriad of reasons for colleges to focus on engaging students in a financial wellness program. Student success, academic performance, and student stress are just a few.

To build an effective program and to increase student participation, use incentives that are timely and targeted.

Focus on creating interest and then developing intrinsic motivation for ongoing participation.

Soon students will recognize the benefits – decreased financial stress and extra savings, to name just a few.



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