Nudges to the Finish Line: Tackling the Last Mile to increase College Completion

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Improving college completion rates continues to be an important focus for state and national policymakers. Only 58% of degree-seeking students obtain a degree or certificate within six years of starting college. Most efforts to date have focused on increasing college access or improving early persistence. 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 (“near-completers”) but who are at risk of dropping out before graduating. In Nudges to the Finish Line (N2FL), the Nudge4 team is investigating, through an RCT, whether behaviorally informed “nudges” can increase degree attainment among this population.

The Problem

A college degree remains a reliable pathway to greater economic success, yet socioeconomic gaps in college completion continue to widen. 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 affiliates and N2FL project leads, Zack Mabel, shows that at broad-access colleges and universities, as many as one out of every three students who drop out have earned at least 75% of the credits needed for their associate’s or bachelor’s degree. 

The Project Team

Nudges to the Finish Line is made possible through a 5-year research grant from the Institute of Education Sciences*. Our implementation partners include 19 institutions from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), the City University of New York (CUNY), and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), as well as the University of Washington-Tacoma (UWT) and Ohio University (OU). The research team includes primary investigators Dr. Zack Mabel (The College Board), Dr. Eric Bettinger (Stanford University), Dr. Ben Castleman (University of Virginia). Other team members from the University of Virginia include Danielle Peacock, Yifeng Song, and Alice Choe. Signal Vine and Persistence Plus provide the technology platforms through which we deliver the intervention.

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 of early departure prior to earning a degree. We used this model to identify which currently enrolled students were at low, moderate, or high risk of withdrawal. In ongoing work we are investigating how sensitive our risk predictions are to different predictive model methods.

N2FL is in the final stages of intervention implementation. In addition to evaluating the overall impact of our intervention on student outcomes like persistence and completion, we will investigate how the nudges  differentially affect students based on their predicted risk of early withdrawal. As more institutions increasingly turn to predictive analytics to target their student success initiatives, 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. We began with a pilot phase in 2016-2017 followed by full-scale implementation in late 2017 through 2019.

Students in the treatment group receive approximately one text message per week for an average duration of 2-3 academic semesters. At the VCCS, CUNY, and THECB institutions, students can write back to the campaign messages and get connected with a campus staff member via text, who provides assistance or connects students to other resources on campus. Across all implementation partners, there are 75 advisors or campus staff representatives who are dedicated to responding to inbound messages from students.

Intervention design and content is driven by close collaboration with each partner institution. For example, institutions were enthusiastic about increased use of multimedia in the text messages to increase the salience of our messaging.

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.

Originally published via LinkedIn Pulse, view article here

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