01/24/2013 04:40 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Where Is Your Carrot?

What motivates any of us to action (or inaction) can depend largely upon how far away the perceived reward may be.

A recent study, reported at eCampus News, concluded that the level to which a student had a "stake in the game" had an influence on overall GPA. Using data from federal data sources, Laura Hamilton from the University of California at Merced discovered that when parents contribute a greater extent toward the total cost of college, overall GPA for their sons and daughters tends to go down. Though she noted that the effect of parental payments is relatively small on GPA, the evidence indicates the existence of an inverse relationship. Her recommendation: let the kids use some of their own funds or get a part-time job so they feel invested -- are motivated -- to earn good grades.

The majority of the subjects in this study tended to be younger (18 to 22 years old) students, given the nature of the data analyzed, so I am not implying a general characterization of young adults. Unlike their younger counterparts, though, working adult students more readily recognize the real-world value in pursuing a degree. In addition, they usually benefit from having some prior learning or educational credentials to bring the end goal closer to reality.

Think of a carrot in front of a horse. Just how close to the horse does the carrot need to be for the animal to recognize and want it? Does proximity influence performance?

A study by CAEL (Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success) of more than 62,000 adult students at 48 postsecondary institutions found that those who had their prior learning assessed for academic credit had better academic outcomes, particularly in terms of persistence and graduation rates. They were motivated by the need/desire to improve their own economic lot and, with the help of prior learning assessment (PLA), the distance between action and reward was shortened considerably.

Moreover, a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute (The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm) concluded that "In jobs at every skill level and in many different occupations, the better-educated applicant has the edge."

Parents, consider the results of the Hamilton study, the degree to which your children have a "stake in the game" and what that may mean to their academic careers. Afterward, if you haven't finished your own degree, consider the CAEL study. Then ask yourself "Where is my carrot?"