Does large-scale nudging work in higher ed?

Studies examine all aspects of gentle reminders that colleges are increasingly sending to students
By: | September 13, 2019
Advisors at Maryville University, referred to as life coaches, begin building relationships with students the summer before freshman year.Advisors at Maryville University, referred to as life coaches, begin building relationships with students the summer before freshman year.

While nudging on a small scale appears to expand access to financial aid and higher ed enrollment, the practice may have less impact on a statewide or national level, according to a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“We find no evidence that different approaches to message framing, delivery, or timing, or access to one-on-one advising affected campaign efficacy,” the authors wrote in the study that examined campaigns that reached 800,000 students. “We discuss why nudge strategies that work locally may be hard to scale effectively.”

A The College Board report that surveyed 785,000 low- and middle-income students found no changes in college enrollment patterns when students received text message reminders or college application fee waivers.


More from UB: A little nudge goes a Long Way—Helping students help themselves


Nudging, however, increased persistence rates among STEM students at four community colleges in Ohio and Virginia, according to a report from JFF, a nonprofit focused on economic advancement. The colleges used the Persistence Plus platform to send students counseling-style messages asking them about concepts they might be struggling with and encouraging them to seek help.

Surveys by the higher ed consulting firm, Noel Ruffalo Levitz, have shown that nearly two-thirds of students and their parents would find nudging messages helpful, the company’s senior vice president, Patricia Maben, told UB in 2017.


More from UB: Apps personalize campus communications


Nudging is part of the strategy of “intrusive advising” practices that have been adopted at more colleges and universities. The goal is to reach out to students regularly, and solve problems before they grow.

“When students are off track, advisors use a variety of mechanisms to draw them in,” Richard D. Sluder, vice provost for student success and dean of University College at Middle Tennessee State University, told UB in 2018. “Old-school advising works by expecting students to come to advisors, but often, the students who take advantage of advisor availability are those who probably don’t need intensive services.”

Intrusive advising relies on robust technology, early interventions and a focus beyond academics, UB reported.


More from UB: 5 elements of successful intrusive advising practices