- STEM students who received nudges at four community colleges persisted at a 16-percentage-point-higher rate after their first semester than those who opted not to receive the nudges, according to a study released Tuesday.
- Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Persistence Plus selected three institutions in Ohio and one in Virginia to implement a campuswide nudging initiative, which involved nearly 10,000 students total, after a successful pilot of the program in 2017.
- Some populations saw greater effects than others. Racial minority and adult students who received nudges had persistence rates that were 16 and 20 percentage points higher, respectively, than students in those groups who didn't receive nudges.
Nudges, or digital alerts that aim to influence students' behavior, have been floated as a possible solution to some of higher education's hard-to-solve problems.
In this case, JFF, a workforce development nonprofit, and Persistence Plus, an education services company, wanted to test if nudges could break down the "psychosocial barriers" that can lead to STEM students dropping out of college.
A randomized control trial in the summer of 2017 had promising results. The study, which involved more than 2,700 first-year students across three of the community colleges, showed that STEM students who received nudges had a first-year persistence rate that was 10 percentage points higher than those who didn't.
The nudging interventions were then scaled across four institutions: Lakeland Community College, Stark State College and Lorain County Community College, all in Ohio; and John Tyler Community College, in Virginia. All four colleges saw increases in students' persistence rates, and three have opted to continue using the service.
The nudges were designed to help learners use services such as tutoring and advising and to feel like they belonged in their programs.
"Nudge after nudge came back with students saying, … 'I didn't really feel like I could be a scientist in my STEM program until these messages helped really reinforce that I belong here,'" said Barbara Endel, senior director at JFF and a co-author of the report. She added that they served as an "important reminder about how fragile students' success can be."
Moreover, the nudges revealed what services students needed. For instance, Stark State found that nearly three-fourths (72%) of its students "felt they were poorly managing finances," suggesting the college could offer more financial planning services for new students. And Lorain saw the use of its food pantry triple over a year after they rolled out nudges intended to connect food-insecure students to the service.
Taken together, the randomized control trial and the results of the nudges' full implementation add to a body of research that has shown certain nudges can help make progress on some of higher education's thorniest issues, such as boosting enrollment and increasing retention.
But other recent studies have cast doubt on whether nudges can be scaled successfully.
In August, a working paper found that emails, mailers and text messages encouraging more than 800,000 students to complete their FAFSA forms didn't affect whether they used financial aid or enrolled in college.
And earlier this year, a separate study found that giving high school students more information about the college application process, including in the form of text message nudges and fee waivers, didn't change their enrollment patterns.
Researchers have previously suggested personalization may be key to making nudges work. And Endel said these latest results warrant further study.
"Right now we are seeing mixed results," she said. "I would hate for the field to abandon this intervention without fully exploring under what specific conditions (nudges) may or may not work."