Nudging: A Way for US Colleges to Support Students

28 September, 2019

For some people, higher education is not just a goal in life, but also an expectation.

In the United States, if your parents attended a college or university, there is a good chance that you will, too. Even if your parents did not go to college, you still have a good chance of completing higher education if your family is wealthy.

But your chances are reduced if you come from a needy family, a community with limited educational resources or you simply have no one to follow as an example.

Helping those in need is one of the main ideas behind a strategy of behavioral science called nudge theory or nudging. Nudging is a way of changing people's behavior through indirect suggestion and by supporting positive actions. It was popularized in the 2008 book Nudge. The book was a project of a legal expert and an economist with the University of Chicago.

A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities look to nudging as way to support poor, minority and first-generation students. They also are using it to increase overall graduation rates. Two common forms of nudging are emails to students and text messages to their mobile phones. Schools and other educational organizations keep in contact with students this way, offering advice and help when needed.

However, recent studies have shown that there is more than one way nudging can go wrong. And making use of nudging to influence large groups of students is harder than it seems.

Alejandra Acosta is a higher education policy expert at New America, an independent research group. She notes that there are several qualities a nudge campaign must possess in order to be successful.

Acosta says messages must be timely, meaning they reach college students well before the date by which a student is required to take action. Additionally, nudges should be written clearly and provide as much information as possible. If students start to struggle in class, school officials should not just message them, saying they should seek academic support. The message should give information about what kinds of support the college or university offers and exactly how the student can make use of them.

That is why nudges should possess interactive qualities, Acosta says. For example, students should be able to ask questions of school officials or be directed to a website for more information. In addition, colleges and universities must ensure their support services are in place and working as best they can.

"You can't expect to just send a nudge in a text or an email and be like, ‘Okay, we're done,'" Acosta told VOA. "To change behavior, there has to be other supporting structures there, too."

Utah Valley University student Jody Nelson walks down the bright green lanes painted on the stairs from the gym with her phone in her hand on Thursday, June 18, 2015, at Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah.
Utah Valley University student Jody Nelson walks down the bright green lanes painted on the stairs from the gym with her phone in her hand on Thursday, June 18, 2015, at Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah.

When nudges work, they can do a lot of good. In 2017, a nonprofit group and an education services company launched a nudging campaign at four U.S. community colleges. They worked with nearly 10,000 first-year students at three such colleges in Ohio and one in Virginia. A recent study found that older and minority students who agreed to receive these nudges were 16 to 20 percent more likely to continue into their second year than those who did not.

Iris Palmer is a senior adviser for higher education and the workforce at New America. She warns that even if nudges are clear, informative and timely, they can actually create problems, especially for the student who needs them the most.

Palmer told VOA, "An example of this would be: I'm a student who has never been to college before, my family has never been to college before. I come to college and I wonder if I'm college material. I get a message that says, ‘You're getting a failing grade in this class. You need to come talk to your adviser.' And I think, ‘Oh, I'm failing. I wasn't even college material to begin with. I should just leave now."

Nudges need to be personal, or appear to be written for the individual student, not as a general communication to a large group, she noted.

This means they need to be structured carefully, requiring schools and educational organizations to know something about the individuals they are nudging. Palmer argues school officials should research what their students' needs are and shape nudges to be related to those needs. Officials also must not make it seem like students have no other choice but to take a given action.

But Kelly Rosinger points out that while nudging is successful in a lot of ways, it has yet to show signs of success when dealing with very large groups. Rosinger serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State University.

Rosinger admits that nudging can be a low cost, useful way of getting students to meet relatively simple goals on time. This includes completing the U.S. government documents necessary for financial aid.

However, last month Rosinger and other researchers reported on a study in which they looked at two nudging experiments. The National Bureau of Economic Research published their findings.

The experiments nudged over 800,000 students through physical mail, emails and text messages. The study found that these efforts had almost no effect on the number of students starting college, using financial aid or continuing from one year to the next.

Rosinger says the reason the experiments failed was because the nudges were trying to reach so many students. This made the messages seem more general and, as a result, less effective. She suggests that for now, nudging works best when it comes from local groups working with smaller numbers of students in their community.

"Just getting a message from an organization you are familiar with can create more of that personalization," she said. "It may make the message more salient to students when they're getting it."

I'm Dorothy Gundy.
And I'm Pete Musto

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What kind of student support efforts like nudging do colleges and universities in your country make use of? Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

resource(s) – n. a place or thing that provides something useful

strategyn. a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time

positiveadj. good or useful

graduationn. the act of receiving a diploma or degree from a school, college, or university

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

interactiveadj. designed to respond to the actions or commands of a user

graden. a number or letter that shows how a student performed in a class or on a test

familiaradj. frequently seen, heard, or experienced

salientadj. very important or noticeable