Enrollment Blog

Getting the job done: Nudging students to completion

by Emily Bauer

Even the most responsible among us needs to be reminded to get our chores done, to complete those tasks that are not the most fun facets of our day. For some prospective students, moving through the college application process can be a too-long series of “downer duties,” and as a consequence, some of them simply peter out, missing their chances to apply, deposit, and ultimately, enroll in college.

This harmful inertia is troubling—and, I believe, preventable. To begin to counter it, my team and I deployed the wisdom of behavioral economics to “nudge” students along through their college application to-do lists.

Drawing on the influential work of scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, we explored “choice architecture”—the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented—in targeted student communications.

Royall teamed up with partner schools to create two studies that put the fruit at eye level, to use the oft-quoted metaphor. The fruit is, of course, the positive action the prospective student needs to take to progress toward college enrollment. Our first study tested the efficacy of email nudges to submit applications, and the second analyzed the power of text-message reminders to deposit.

Completing the Common Application

Confronting a stack college applications—however important—can become an arduous exercise for prospective students. The Common Application, now used by over a million students each year, was designed to reduce the redundancy and drudgery of applying to a range of schools. Although the Common Application greatly simplifies tasks, a lot of students still do not get it done.

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These non-completers are a huge pool of lost opportunities for enrollment teams, so we designed and tested targeted email reminders to nudge students toward application completion. Partner schools provided Royall with lists of prospective students who started—but did not file—the Common Application. These students received Royall’s strategic email communications which, through a series of carefully crafted choices, prodded them to complete either the Common Application or the school’s custom application.

Results were conclusively positive. We found a 63% lift in response rates, a boost that carried through to the admission stage. And a significant number of students who received partner school prompts opted to complete the school’s custom application. I was pleased to confirm that targeted email reminders effectively nudge students to move their stack of languishing applications out of their backpacks and into the hands of the admissions directors.

Text Nudging

Ever-eager to unpack the complexity of an enrollment strategy, our Royall team extended its analyses of nudging to include questions of communication channel. Text messaging was an obvious medium to explore: Parents and professors, alike, frustrated by the far-away gazes of teens, have taken to texting as an essential way to gain to their attention, and a recent study by Pew Research Center confirms that texting is now teens’ primary mode of communication.

Many of our partner schools—also eager to effectively reach teens—have asked us for strategies to leverage text communications with students. So our team got to it. We began as we always do, returning to our extensive data and recent analyses. We confirmed that 86% of students are amenable to receiving texts from colleges when it is about time-sensitive information, like application or deposit deadlines. But because our data also shows that students are less receptive to receiving text messages for other, less-consequential reasons, we decided to design and test a deadline-oriented SMS message campaign that nudged students to complete important tasks.

Our results were excitingly conclusive. They indicate that time-sensitive SMS nudges are a highly effective. In one study, 90% (ninety!) of students read the text message within a mere three minutes of receiving it, and 80% of those students who replied to the school did so within just two hours—these are lightening speeds for many of us!

We were equally excited to learn that SMS nudges reached students indifferent to other forms of outreach. That is, we discovered that a significant number of students responded to text messages who had not responded to other communication channels, like mail or email.

These revelations suggest that time-sensitive, SMS messaging is an effective means to get the attention—and prompt the action—of prospective students, helping to capture incremental responders and fuel response rates.

Thanks to the powerful results of these studies, I find myself looking at my own (too lengthy) to-do list with new optimism. I know that simple, planned prodding can help me to get my various jobs done. One of the most important of those jobs is to help enrollment officers and the students they serve to combat the detrimental torpor that can stall the college application process: Inertia should neither cost schools qualified applicants nor deter prospective students from fulfilling their educational potential. The results of these two studies prove that students can be guided to positive action; students’ choice can be influenced simply by changing the way options are presented.

Royall is already engaged in new testing to gain an even more nuanced understanding of nudging, but for now we are pleased to know that well-crafted nudging is good for students and schools, alike. Targeted reminders help prospective students complete enrollment tasks which, in turn, helps enrollment officers succeed in their jobs, too.

What are the best ways to get through to college-bound students?

We asked students directly (almost 9,000 of them), and we've compiled their answers, including how students are gathering information about college and when and how to engage students through social media, into our report "The Latest Student Communication Preferences."

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