Building effective research-practice partnerships to improve college completion rates

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Nudges to the Finish Line (N2FL) is a project that investigates whether nudges can increase college completion rates among students who are close to graduating but are at risk of dropping out. From late 2017 through 2019, our team implemented an interactive text messaging campaign at 21 colleges and universities in Virginia, New York, Texas, Ohio, and Washington. You can read more about N2FL on our project website, previous article, and our Fall 2019 working paper.

As we turn to the evaluation phase of this project, we take a moment to reflect on the importance of research-practice partnerships in successfully implementing college completion interventions.

Long-Term Relationships

We developed relationships with a wide range of staff to implement N2FL —from securing institutional support with leadership at the Provosts and Deans’ Offices, to collaborating with campus staff like academic advisors to provide mobile support to students. In parallel, system offices such as the VCCS, CUNY, and the THECB provided access to the data we needed for the project. 

Much like Nudge4 designates a project lead for each of our projects, each partner designated 1-2 people to lead N2FL implementation at their institution. These leads connected us with their colleagues and helped us navigate internal processes and requirements. These relationships enabled us to effectively plan and execute the many moving pieces and consistently move the project forward—all while privileging each institution’s role in the decision-making process.

Tailoring Interventions at Each Institution 

Close collaboration with our partners shaped the N2FL intervention in meaningful ways. Recent studies show that low-cost informational nudge interventions that produce positive impacts at the local level fail to retain their effects when scaled. This finding underscores the importance of co-designing with institutional partners who work directly with students and can therefore spot critical opportunities to personalize the intervention. Institutions brought important insights that helped us customize the intervention to their unique institutional setting and student needs. These adjustments played a crucial role in strengthening the intervention design. 

Integrating Existing Advising Resources

Our process of co-designing N2FL with our institutional partners also involved jointly deciding how to harness advising resources at each college or university. Our partners had to decide which staff would serve in the mobile advising role, based on their staffing capacity and advising structures already in place. Institutions that connected students directly with mobile advisors used one of four advising models: direct connection to a professional advisor; direct connection to a faculty advisor; staff point person; or segmented advising.

Click image to enlarge.

Customizing Text Message Content

When crafting the text message content with each college, the advising staff’s expertise and experience were integral to tailoring the messages to their students. We kicked off this collaborative process by sharing an initial set of draft text messages for one academic semester to each partner to review and provide feedback. This first draft articulated what we considered to be relevant topics (i.e., applying for financial aid, using campus resources like tutoring), but encouraged advisors to propose any additional topics that were important to include for their students. These iterations produced anywhere between 1-5 rounds of feedback with each institution for each semester of messaging.

Suggested edits from institutions ranged from details to big-picture perspectives. For instance, one school suggested omitting the use of exclamation points in the text messages because they seemed inappropriate for their non-traditional students who were typically working adults. Another institution advised tailoring messages about academic support services for their distance students, providing information about online-based services like virtual tutors.

In our next article, we look forward to sharing examples of the N2FL text messages delivered to students and an overview of how the messages evolved over time for individual colleges.

Originally published via LinkedIn Pulse, view article here

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