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Community College STEM Students Getting ‘Nudged’ Toward Success

Are text-based “nudges” the answer to helping students succeed in school? Up to a point, many experts say.

While they are not a silver bullet that will transform student retention and completion, “behavioral nudges,” as they are also known, have been shown to be effective to that point that they are now a part of the education mainstream. Schools use text messages to remind students to sign up for classes, touch base with their academic advisors and a whole host of other necessary items on any college student’s agenda.

Jill FrankfortJill Frankfort

Now that nudges are no longer viewed as a radical innovation, according to Jill Frankfort, cofounder and CEO of Persistence Plus, “colleges are at a point of thinking about it seriously or actively engaging to put this on campus.”

Persistence Plus, a text-based nudge mobile app developer based in Boston, teamed up with the nonprofit Jobs for the Future this fall to initiate a program aimed at more than 10,000 incoming community college students attending four schools. Ohio’s Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College and Stark State College, along with John Tyler Community College in Virginia, will participate in the Nudging to STEM Success for the next two years.

Nudging to STEM Success, as its name suggests, is designed to keep students moving along in the STEM fields while also helping them see themselves as candidates for a career in STEM. “We want to make sure that community college students are aware of career services or STEM services on campus, particularly if they’re coming from first-generation backgrounds and are less familiar with the [elements] of ‘how to do college well,’” Frankfort said.

The ubiquity of cell phones make text nudges one of the more effective way to reach students, according to educators like Julie Ranson, vice president of student success at John Tyler Community College. While emails can pile up in an inbox unread, texts tend be harder to miss. Additionally, what might seem more intrusive or overwhelming on another medium might seem more acceptable by text.

“If [adults] move into a space where young people are, they’ll probably just leave,” Ranson said. “Like MySpace, Facebook… but I don’t think they can leave text messaging. They can opt out, but I think there’s some real value to going into that space.”

Picking the right communication tool for the message is important, Ranson added. Sometimes sending out an email simply is the best way to communicate a more complex message.

Nudging to STEM Success is not JTCC’s first foray into behavioral nudges. The college began working with a company called TextAim in the summer of 2016. The college concluded its relationship with TextAim after initiating the partnership with Jobs for the Future and Persistence Plus.

In contrast to Nudging to STEM Success, in which communication is being handled by parties external to JTCC, college employees managed all of the responses through TextAim. They also developed the texts, which had more of a “transactional” focus, Ranson explained, including reminders to students about payment due dates and appointments with advisors.

Students showed definite interest in the program, she said. Only 6 to 8 percent opted out, and anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of students would text back with further questions after receiving a message, Ranson said. All responses were fielded by Ranson and three colleagues, who worked into the nights to make feedback as immediate as possible.

“It could get really busy – when a text first goes out, you could get up to 80 responses right away,” Ranson said. “We just all pitched in.

Nudging to STEM Success may also shed light on what level of engagement and communication is most effective for different student-age cohorts and help elucidate particular areas of student concern. Although the program just started this semester, it has already generated new insights about the issues that some JTCC students are grappling with.

“What we’re trying to do is see how our community colleges can implement behavioral nudging, and study how it reinforces or upholds existing student success initiatives broadly and specifically in STEM,” said Amy Girardi, senior program manager at Jobs for the Future.

One of the most-replied to messages to date at JTCC, for instance, asked students if they had either been food insecure or were not sure where their next meal was coming from. About 15 to 16 percent of students responded – amounting to 250 students total – 55 percent of whom replied in the affirmative. The college was able to connect students with an online application to emergency funds, which subsequently saw a spike in applications.

These kinds of insights were not possible through the last program. “There’s a psychological component to these behavioral nudges, about talking to students about how other students cope with college, so I think it’s a lot more personal than the messages we were sending,” Ranson said.

Texts are not a panacea to all the problems in higher education, Ranson acknowledged. “We kind of have a problem with technology today where we believe that technology is going to solve all of our problems,” she said.

Instead, nudges work best when complemented with existing student success strategies. “It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it is pretty transformative when it comes to streamlining student communication and meeting the student exactly where they are,” Ranson said.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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