Kickstarter for students: StudyBooster is betting you'll pay your kids to study

By Kym McNicholas , written on March 14, 2013

From The News Desk

In high school I had a friend whose parents promised her a new car on the day of graduation if she got straight As. My parents, in contrast, warned me that if didn’t get good grades, they wouldn't pay for college. One is the carrot, the other the stick. Would my friend have gotten straight As without the bribe of a car? Would I have done as well without the threat of spending my life slinging no-whip mochaccinos? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) But what I can say is that each child is driven by different incentives. For some there's some sort of monetary or materialistic incentive. For them, there's StudyBooster, a formal mechanism for family and friends to encourage students to do better.

Think of it as a Kickstarter for achievement. A student or family member can start a campaign on the site. Basically they set a goal the student should achieve, such as the completion of a book report or all As on a report card. Then friends and family can pledge money as an incentive for the student to achieve that goal. If the goal is met, the money goes to the student. If not, supporters have the option to release the funds to the student saying they got close enough, or they can choose to withhold the cash.

In the parlance of behavioral psychology, StudyBooster is promoting extrinsic rewards (OK, bribes). There's a whole body of literature that indicates that extrinsic motivations – those that don't come from within – are not as beneficial as intrinsic rewards: self-motivation, like when you are actually interested in doing something. (You can read Daniel Pink and Clay Shirky to learn more.) But that doesn't mean there's no room for extrinsic motivations. Our whole education system is premised on them. What are grades but extrinsic motivations (but I digress)?

StudyBooster co-founder Dominic Bressan got the idea for the company when he found himself procrastinating while finishing his MBA at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. Why, he wondered, did students like him waste time? It made no sense. He should have been screaming toward the finish line. During his research he came across this Harvard study, which showed that students respond to cash awards – not as the complete solution, but as part of an educational program. So he decided to team up with co-founders Stefan Williams, and Jorden Minos to create StudyBooster.

The idea of paying students to achieve isn't new. In 2007 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried paying low-income students $5 to $10 for taking a test and $25 to $50 for getting good grades. Under the plan, students could rack up a maximum of $500 and schools that participated could take in $5,000.  Alas, it didn't work, and the program was discontinued.

study booster mac pic

I can hear the critics now. Some would argue that parents shouldn't have to bribe a child to achieve. They would say it sets a bad precedent. A child should simply be driven by a sense of accomplishment. One Facebook friend of mine says, "I think incentivizing puts unneeded pressure which can lead to depression or worse." Although I do agree with the critics, I think my boss Sarah Lacy has said it best, "You should make things for how people are, not how you want them to be."

So far students seem to like it. Then again, there's cash to be had, so why wouldn't they? According to StudyBooster co-founder Dominic Bressan, more than 2,000 people pre-registered for the service during a two-week pre-beta rollout at Australian college campuses.

I think this could prove beneficial to students who can’t afford college, and are struggling to get loans, to create campaigns asking for help. I could also see communities rallying behind certain students. But I also see Uncle Sam ultimately monitoring these campaigns once this site takes off. So those who use it, definitely beware that the taxman will be watching…at least in the States.

Co-founder Dominic Bressan says, "It's a sponsorship, so we believe this shouldn't be an issue...but that's Australia, not the US."

StudyBooster says it will begin to make money the moment the first person achieves a goal. Six percent of the transaction is taken out for operation costs (revenue), two percent of which will go to the charity "Save the Children" to help low-income students.

StudyBooster could be valuable asset for a company like Chegg, one of the largest education portals in America, which allows students to buy or rent books, manage their class schedules, and find tutors. Or if Chegg opened up its platform for others to offer services, StudyBooster would be an ideal choice. 

And no one paid me to say that. I was driven by intrinsic motivations.