Nudges to the Finish Line: Tackling the Last Mile for Increased College Completion

Only 58% of degree-seeking students obtain a degree or certificate within six years of starting college. A promising but under-utilized avenue for increasing college completion is to focus on students who already have the majority of the credits they need to complete their degree but who are at risk of dropping out before graduating. Nudges to the Finish Line (N2FL) investigates, through an RCT, whether behaviorally informed “nudges” can increase degree attainment among this population.


The Problem

  • Among students from lower levels of income and educational attainment, just 14% earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with 60% of students from the most advantaged families.
  • Recent research by one of our N2FL researchers, Zack Mabel, shows that at broad-access colleges and universities, as many as one out of every three students who earn at least 75% of the credits needed for their associate’s or bachelor’s degree drop out prior to graduating.

Only 58% of degree-seeking students obtain a degree or certificate within six years of starting college.


Deep Dive into the Data

  • Prior to implementing the N2FL intervention, Nudge4 leveraged large historic student datasets from each of our higher education institution partners to develop predictive models of students’ risk (low, moderate, or high) of early departure prior to earning a degree.
  • We will evaluate the overall impact of our intervention and investigate how the nudges differentially affect students based on their predicted risk of early withdrawal.
  • We’re interested in probing whether such predictive modeling strategies and personalized interventions that result from them lead to better student outcomes.


The Innovation

  • The N2FL intervention leverages behavioral insights to nudge students with personalized text messages that provide important information and guidance for staying on track to complete their degree.
  • Students in the treatment group receive approximately one text message per week for an average duration of 2-3 academic semesters.
  • At 19 of 21 participating institutions, students who reply to the messages connect directly with a campus staff member, who provides assistance or connects students to other resources on campus.
  • Intervention design and content is driven by close collaboration with each partner institution.


The Results

Our evaluation of the pilot phase of N2FL suggest that nudges for near completers can lead to substantially higher graduation rates among students at the highest predicted risk of withdrawal. During the second half of 2019 we will release an updated working paper that presents initial impacts from the N2FL scale phase.


The Project Team

Ben Castleman, Founder and Director, Nudge4
Alice Choe, Project Coordinator
Danielle Peacock, Managing Director
Zachary Mabel, Associate Policy Research Scientist
Catherine Finnegan,
Assistant Vice Chancellor of Institutional Effectiveness

Yifeng Song, Chief Data Scientist
Eric Bettinger,
Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Education


Our implementation partners include 21 institutions from:


Technology platforms through which we deliver the intervention are provided by:

Our Funders