How schools are 'nudging' students into better habits

Principles of behavioral economics encourage students to follow through

Colleges are using principles of behavioral economics to "nudge" students to follow through on certain tasks, Beckie Supiano reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Nudging to achieve goals

Behavioral economics—which takes into account the cognitive, emotional, and social factors that prevent people from accomplishing goals—is being applied to higher education through initiatives that nudge students to succeed.    ­­

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the book "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness," define a nudge as an action that encourages, rather than mandates, a particular behavior.

Guiding student choice to promote persistence

Research suggests that students are not receiving the encouragement needed to carry out tasks that will ensure higher education access and success. One study found that about 20% to 30% of low-income students in urban districts who were admitted to and set to attend four-year institutions ended up not enrolling anywhere. Similarly, in a phenomenon known as "summer melt," admitted students pay a deposit to reserve a place in their college's incoming class but never show up to campus.

Applying behavioral economics to higher education may help bridge the gap between intention and action. 

Ben Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, and Lindsay Page, an assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh, tested a nudge-based approach to helping at-risk students. In their study, students received a series of customized text messages to which they could reply for additional help. The intervention significantly increased enrollment rates at the test sites where students were in need of assistance.

Why policymakers applaud behavioral economics

Higher education scholarship has become more experimental over the last few years, according to Andrew Kelly, director of the American Enterprise Institute's Center on Higher Education Reform. Behavioral economics fits into this new model, he says, because higher education allows for a "perfect storm for the frailties of human reasoning," noting, "The system often seems set up to frustrate people."

Katie Martin, a former managing director of ideas42, a nonprofit organization dealing with behavioral interventions, says behavioral interventions should serve as the basis to overhaul systems for greater efficiency. For example, Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, notes that while helping students fill out necessary forms is crucial, it is important to ask if such a form is necessary in the first place.

Expert insight: Nudge students to better academic choices

Behavioral interventions also are generally cost-effective, which appeals to funders and policymakers. However, low-cost solutions can't always serve as replacements for more costly options aimed at bolstering access and success in higher education. Directing students toward the best colleges is futile unless students have good options available to them, and making the process of applying for financial aid easier only matters to students if they can obtain grants and loans.

When is a nudge necessary?

Castleman favors behavioral interventions because they can be implemented immediately, whereas more in-depth changes take much more time.

Some critics argue that behavioral interventions obscure the fact that college is meant to be challenging, and someone who cannot apply for financial aid perhaps is not ready for college. However, researchers tend to argue that they are helping students with the frustrating, but necessary, peripheral tasks required for college access (Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/29).

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