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Nudging Students Toward Holistic Supports and Postsecondary Success

May 9, 2022

At a Glance

New community college research from JFF and Persistence Plus shows that nudges can improve re-enrollment rates in career pathways programs when they center equity, encourage students to seek support services, and connect to their aspirations.

Lois Joy Director
Ross E. O'Hara
Practices & Centers Topics

Over the past decade, nudging has gained traction in higher education as an effective, low-cost way to recruit new students and encourage current students to stay in school and complete their courses. But attempts to expand nudging programs have yielded mixed results, leaving some educators to wonder whether nudging is as effective as it once promised to be.

We look at it from a different perspective. Instead of trying to determine whether nudging works or not, we recently engaged in research to identify the conditions under which nudges work—or don’t work. That information could help schools design strategies for nudging students in a thoughtful, nuanced manner.

Our findings indicate that nudges can become an invaluable tool for holistically supporting learners in career pathways programs.

Since 2017, our organizations, Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Persistence Plus, have partnered to learn more about nudging and tackle two of higher education’s thorniest challenges: increasing racial equity and developing talent for in-demand jobs.

Our research, in partnership with Delaware Technical Community College (DTCC), finds that during the COVID-19 pandemic—a time when postsecondary enrollment declined, especially at community colleges—text-message nudges boosted enrollment in DTCC’s allied health pathway.

Nudges, which leverage principles of behavioral science to influence students’ decisions about pivotal matters, have shown promise as a way to keep students in school and on a path to graduation. That means successful nudging programs could enable more students to access careers that lead to opportunities for economic advancement. And the results of the DTCC study, which focused on students in the allied health program, indicate that nudging could help diversify the health care workforce: The strongest results were among students from populations that are underrepresented in health care: Black students and men of all backgrounds.

Broadly speaking, our findings, published recently in the Journal of Postsecondary Success, led us to conclude that nudges are most effective when they do the following: support the whole student, connect to students’ aspirations, and center equity. Here are more detailed discussions of each of those findings.

Nudges Should Support the Whole Student

As mental health issues and economic insecurity escalate, our study indicates that nudges can and should be a holistic means of support. Whereas traditional nudges have closed information gaps or reminded students to complete important tasks, we now see that a nudge can be a first step in the process of gauging students’ well-being.

A nudge can be a first step in the process of gauging students’ well-being.

For example, our nudges included questions like “It can be stressful to deal with all of the uncertainty that COVID has brought into our lives. How stressed have you been feeling this week?” For the three in four respondents who told us they were somewhat or very stressed, we normalized those feelings and gave them a space to share and feel heard. We then followed up with guidance about meditation and breathing exercises, along with information about campus counseling services.

Nudges also increase the likelihood that students would be willing to seek help for issues they’re grappling with and help connect students with resources when they’re in crisis (and could possibly even help prevent a crisis). We’ve seen this recently in two studies: one showing that nudges doubled students’ use of the advocacy and resource center at Amarillo College, and another showing that nudging led to increases in emergency aid applications and connections with advisors among students at Dallas College.

Our nudges at DTCC also inquired about basic needs, and more than 50 percent of the participating students told us they were struggling to make ends meet. We responded with information about how to take advantage of emergency aid funds and the campus food pantry. Of course, nudges can’t make up for a lack of resources, but they can make a difference when resources are underused because of lack of awareness, misconceptions, procedural complexities, or psychosocial barriers.

Nudges Should Connect to Students’ Aspirations

Some of our greatest successes have come with nudges that tap into students’ motivations for going to college. Many students are in community college because they want to reenter the workforce or find better jobs, but there are also a growing number of students who are looking to learn new skills so they can move into occupations where they can do work that they find meaningful.

Some of our greatest successes have come with nudges that tap into students’ motivations for going to college.

In our first collaborative research effort, which resulted in the report Nudging to STEM Success, we found that nudges that tapped into community college STEM students’ self-transcendent purposes for learning helped boost fall re-enrollment rates by 10 percentage points.

In our latest research, we tailored our nudges at DTCC to prompt the future health care professionals to reflect on their motives and values. For example, we asked “Which of these would most excite you about working in a health career: Helping people, Working in the community, Being part of a team, or Contributing to society?” This nudge, based on goal congruence theory, guides students to consider pro-social reasons for working in health care, which tend to carry even more weight among Black, Latinx and Hispanic, and first-generation students. Other nudges asked students to affirm an important personal value (such as kindness or friendship) and identify how it relates to their health care aspirations.

In response to this exercise, a student who wants to be a psychiatric nurse reported that she values love and said, “Loving yourself allows you to empathize with others. Understand what they’re going through and help them get better.”

Nudges Should Center Equity

As the pandemic continues to disproportionately keep lower-income students away from college, equity must be at the center of educators’ enrollment and student success efforts.

In our study, we found that nudges most benefited students from populations that are underrepresented in health care professions. For example, the second-year re-enrollment rate increased 7 percentage points among Black students and 11 percentage points among male students. Moreover, the racial/ethnic gap in re-enrollment rates shrank 89 percent, and the gender gap shrank 87 percent. These findings are significant because second-year enrollment is an important milestone that improves a student’s chances of completing community college.

Equity-minded nudges, such as those that help students link their career paths to their core motives and values, are an important tool for overcoming labor shortages that have been exacerbated by the pandemic in health care and other fields.

Our findings about effective nudging initiatives can also improve equity in education by helping leaders reconceptualize college processes. Procedural complexities create barriers to access and success for all students, but they tend to be particularly pernicious for students from populations that are underrepresented in higher education, who may lack social capital and question whether they fit in at college. Simplifying application forms, removing unnecessary steps, and streamlining communications can make great strides toward equity. Moreover, the language we use to describe campus resources, educational pathways, and potential careers often comes from a middle-class white perspective. Behavioral science shows us how nudges that tap into culturally relevant perspectives on education and work can increase feelings of belonging and success and completion rates among students from underrepresented groups.

Where We Go From Here

As education and the labor market undergo dizzying changes, the way higher education uses nudges to improve student success must evolve as well. We will pursue further research, both in tandem and independently, to support that evolution. Our efforts will focus on three main areas:

  1. The why. We need to better understand the underlying psychological and behavioral mechanisms that drive when and why nudges do or do not work. In a future project, for example, we intend to measure development of STEM identity as one potential pathway through which nudges improve persistence in postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and math coursework. And working with another community college partner, we’re examining how nudges could boost persistence by connecting students with learning accommodations and financial resources on campus.
  2. Workforce development. As colleges invest more in workforce pathways leading to well-paid, in-demand jobs, we’re designing nudges for students participating in those programs. Whereas most prior research has ignored students seeking associate’s degrees or certificates, we’re working on projects to nudge community college students in health care, information technology, engineering, and computer science programs. We’re also exploring how to best support students participating in boot camps and other rapid retraining programs.
  3. Equity. Some critics of nudging programs argue that focusing on nudging leads to underinvestment in systemic changes to higher education. However, based on our years of work, we believe that nudges can do more than help students navigate overly complex systems that aren’t designed with them in mind. Through our partnerships with postsecondary institutions of all kinds—historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions, as well as schools whose students are primarily white—we’re continuing to learn more about how nudging can elevate voices and reveal insights that support colleges’ growing efforts to dismantle systemic barriers.

The need for strategies that more effectively guide today’s students to tomorrow’s careers is stronger than ever. Our ongoing research on the right way to nudge will yield insights that enable educators to refine those strategies.

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