Why Paying Students is a Bad Idea

The other day, I overheard a student saying that if the school paid them, they would get better grades. I’m sure all the other teachers out there have heard this one as well. Actually, paying students wouldn’t improve performance. And here’s why…


1. Not All People Are Motivated By Money

If people were motivated by money, then nobody would be poor. In Financial Peace University, Dave Ramsey tells of a UCLA study where people were paid to dig a trench. After a lunch break they were told to fill the trench back in. Naturally, they were hesitant. I mean, here was this beautiful trench they had worked so hard to dig, and the bosses wanted it filled back in? The experimenters told the participants  that they were being paid and not to ask questions.

At the end of the day, they were told that the pay would be doubled the next day for everyone who showed up. Not surprisingly, many did not show up. For those that returned, the digging/refilling cycle resumed. Again, the participants were reluctant to fill in a perfectly good trench, and again they were told they were being paid and not to ask questions.

The next day, the pay was tripled. Even fewer workers returned.

In the end, the experimenters concluded that people are not motivated by meaningless work regardless of the amount of compensation.

Conclusion: Cognitive engagement is not enhanced by a monetary attachment. If a student is already struggling, it’s probably due to lack of engagement. Keep reading to see what Dan Pink reports in Drive. Adding money is not going to increase performance unless you’re rewarding menial tasks.

2. More Surprising Studies

According to this research reported by Dan Pink in the video scribe below, money is not a good incentive for cognitive challenges. Considering the level of rigor required to be successful with high school academics, it is unlikely — based on the research — that paying student would increase performance. In fact, the opposite is true. The more money people were paid for complicated tasks, the worse the performance.

3. Do the Math

If nothing else, do the math. Even in a small high school like mine (~300), paying just minimum wage is cost prohibitive. Figure it out. Seven and half hours a day at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would be $54.38 a day per student. Now multiply that by 300 students. $16,314 a day! Hold on. Not quite there… There are 180 days in a school year.

Paying 300 high school students minimum wage would cost a school with 300 high school students nearly 3 million dollars per year — about a sixth of the annual budget. And that’s just the high school students! For a quarter of that kind of investment, every student could be provided an iPad, and every classroom could have a smart board.

And consider the logistics. Would “A” students get paid more than “D” students? Would “A” students withhold services if “D” students earned the same? Would “D” students cry discrimination if they earned less than “A” students? Paying students is clearly not a good idea.


In the end, education works best when students are learning for learning’s sake. I understand that not every topic is interesting to learn. But an education is worth having. One of the reasons that an education is so highly coveted is because others know that it was challenging to earn (and sometimes boring). Your education is the one thing that no person can ever take away from you. You could lose your job. The bank might repo your car. Maybe you don’t have a job or a car yet. In any event, your education credentials are something you will always have that will always allow you to start anew.

Make sense? What’s your two cents.

Intrigued? Join the nation!