Nonprofit Research Firm “Nudges” Students toward College Degrees

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July 11, 2016; Fast Company, “Co.Exist”

People with a college degree are more likely to be employed and have a higher income on average than individuals without degrees. In fact, the average income for college dropouts is lower than $35,000, and their unemployment rate is double that of someone with a college degree. Given these dreary circumstances, the United States still faces a staggering number of students dropping out of college—less than 60 percent of those who begin a degree program at a four-year college will actually complete it.

A Pew Research Center survey found that almost half of the Americans surveyed who dropped out of college cited the cost of education as being prohibitive. A 2011 Harvard study on college dropout rate says that students are ill prepared for the academic rigors of college. Today’s job market has shifted such that some kind of post-secondary degree is needed to be competitive. Thus, more students than ever are enrolling in college but are unaware of how to succeed once there. Further, enrolling in college but not attaining a degree causes these students to face debt on top of a low income. The system clearly is broken.

Ideas42, a nonprofit behavioral research firm, took a new lens to looking at education reform. Rather than focusing on large systemic changes to the system, they used small interventions—nudges—to encourage students at risk of dropping out to continue.

In their report, “Nudging for Success,” they discuss the results of experiments completed in over a dozen schools across the United States. Ideas42 found that on a day-to-day basis, students must overcome a multitude of “invisible barriers” that wear away at a student’s will to graduate. For instance, finding a social network in college is extremely important, but often overlooked. First-generation college students and underrepresented student groups find it particularly difficult to fit in. The report says, “The everyday stress of college life can send the wrong message to students, leading them to question whether they truly belong in college in the first place.”

To combat this, the researchers created a video of students discussing the struggles they faced during their first year in college to normalize the experience. Incoming students were shown the video and asked to complete a brief survey. Supportive emails and text messages were sent monthly to the students afterward. This simple intervention led to a ten percent increase in retention and a seven percent increase in GPA.

Another nudge employed by the researchers was to send email and text reminders to students and their parents to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) before the deadline. At Arizona State University, where four out of five students were missing the deadline, these messages led to a 72 percent increase in application rates.

While it seems as if Ideas42 is on to something, in some respects, these supportive text messages and reminders to meet deadlines are akin to “hand-holding.” Perhaps this is appropriate as students transition from high school to college in their freshman year, but how long is it appropriate to nudge students along? Ben Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, focuses his research on using text messages to simplify information and help students make decisions. Through his work, he has found two main negative consequences.

The first are concerns about how far to take nudges: “You’re texting them reminders about renewing their financial aid. Are you going to nudge them to hand in their homework in college? To wake up in the morning? Where do you draw the line?” The second concern is that after some time, students will learn to “tune out” the nudges.

While nudging might not be the answer to the so-called “completion crisis” the U.S. is facing, Castleman says, “Over the long term, we should continue to invest in the systemic changes necessary to ensure that every student in America has a high quality education. But for the students who need our help today, behavioral nudges offer a powerful strategy for creating lasting educational improvement among disadvantaged populations.”—Sheela Nimishakavi