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Community Colleges Boost STEM Student Success Through Behavioral Nudging, Study Finds

Analysis of 9,500 students from JFF and Persistence Plus highlights potential for AI-powered student support to improve persistence for STEM students

September 10, 2019

At a Glance

Analysis of 9,500 students from JFF and Persistence Plus highlights potential for AI-powered student support to improve persistence for STEM students

Analysis of 9,500 students from JFF and Persistence Plus highlights potential for AI-powered student support to improve persistence for STEM students

BOSTON (SEPTEMBER 10, 2019) — JFF, a national nonprofit driving transformation in the American workforce and education systems, and Persistence Plus, which pairs behavioral insights with intelligent text messaging to improve student success, today released the findings from an analysis that examined the effects of personalized nudging on nearly 10,000 community college students. The study, conducted over two years at four community colleges, found that behavioral nudging had a significant impact on student persistence rates—with strong improvements among students of color and older adult learners, who are often underrepresented among graduates of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

“These results offer powerful evidence on the potential, and imperative, of using technology to support students during the most in-demand, and often most challenging, courses and majors,” said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF. “With millions of STEM jobs going unfilled, closing the gap in STEM achievement has profound economic—and equity—implications.”

In a multiyear initiative called “Nudging to STEM Success”, which was funded by the Helmsley Charitable Trust, JFF and Persistence Plus selected four colleges to implement the nudging initiative campuswide: Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio; Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio; Stark State College in North Canton, Ohio; and John Tyler Community College in Chester, Virginia.

A randomized control trial in the summer of 2017 showed that the nudges increased first-to-second-year persistence for STEM students by 10 percentage points. The results of that trial will be presented in an upcoming peer-reviewed paper titled “A Summer Nudge Campaign to Motivate Community College STEM Students to Reenroll.” The paper will be published in AERA Open, an open-access journal published by the American Educational Research Association.

Following the 2017 trial, the four colleges scaled the support to nearly 10,000 students, and over the next two years, JFF and Persistence Plus found that the nudging support had a particularly strong impact on students of color and students over the age of 25—two groups that have historically had lower persistence rates than other students.

JFF’s two-year implementation report details how 72 percent of the students who received nudges persisted after their first semester of nudging, compared with 56 percent of the students who opted not to receive nudges. Among students of color, 62 percent of those who received nudges persisted (compared to 46 percent of those who decided to opt out of the program).

The improvements were even greater among adult students over the age of 25: In that group, 64 percent of students who received nudges persisted (compared to 44 percent of those who opted out). Students interviewed for the study reported that the just-in-time nature of the messages helped increase their motivation and tenacity to overcome challenges.

“These results send an encouraging signal to institutions working to identify scalable strategies to improve persistence, and completion, for students of color within STEM fields,” said Jill Frankfort, president of Persistence Plus. “We believe these additional findings and insights will help to advance the field’s understanding of nudging—and its potential to improve student success.”

As part of the initiative, leaders at each campus worked with behavioral science and technology experts from Persistence Plus to implement a mobile text-messaging system that enabled students to both receive encouraging automated responses and ask questions. At Lorain County Community College, administrators used the nudging to help students address basic needs and overcome barriers to success, directing them to critical services such as financial planning, tutoring, and advising programs, as well as the college’s on-campus food pantry.

“Often, the barriers that today’s students face are complex and multifaceted—balancing work, family, transportation, health and wellness, and finances. To overcome these challenges, students need encouragement. They need to know they are not alone and that there are resources available to help them keep going under adverse circumstances,” said Dr. Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College. “Nudging has become an integral component of our student success strategy, enabling us to deliver timely messages of support to extend the reach and impact of on-campus student services. More of our students are thriving and on the path to success in STEM professions.”

Moving forward, three of the four colleges plan to continue using these nudging strategies and have expanded them beyond STEM programs. JFF and Persistence Plus are actively looking to expand behavioral nudges to support learners in other areas, such as workforce training and adult education. They also plan to seek partners and funding to expand the project to new campuses in a second phase of the initiative.



Persistence Plus: Managing Director Cecilia Le,