How to send reminders that students will act on

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Nudging students with digital alerts can increase enrollment and persistence—the key is to include next steps, not just information, in your reminders.

In a post for The Conversation, Peter Bergman, an assistant professor of Economics and Education at Columbia University's Teachers College, discusses research on effective tactics for preventing summer melt and decreasing under matching.

Fifteen percent of low-income students who were accepted to college fail to enroll by the following fall; at community colleges that rate can reach 40%. Several factors contribute to this issue: myths surrounding costs, complicated financial aid processes, and lack of guidance.

Low-cost, scalable message initiatives can combat the melt, Bergman writes, but not all efforts are successful. 

Help students overcome 'the resilience gap' by priming them with positive messaging

"Behavioral economics suggests several important features to make a nudge effective: simplify complex information, make tasks easier to complete, and ensure that support is timely," he says.

Just providing information is not enough, Bergman writes. The key is making it actionable.

In 2012, two researchers sent 10 text messages to about 2,000 students who intended to enroll in college the summer after they graduated. The texts gave "just-in-time" reminders for enrollment, housing, and financial aid deadlines. Students could text back and receive personalized attention from college guidance counselors instead of having to set up a meeting. Enrollment increased 15%.

The art of effective student communication

As part of the Expanding College Opportunities Project (ECO), low-income, high-ability students received tailored mailers containing information about local colleges' graduation rates, application deadlines, net costs, and how to claim application fee waivers. The packets served to simplify costs and the complexity of applying. Chances of a student earning admission to a selective college jumped 78%.

Preliminary findings from Bergman's own research suggest just giving students information is insufficient. His team sent letters and emails to about 100,000 college applicants with facts but no next steps. 

"Without this support to answer questions or help families complete forms to claim the benefits, we found no impact, even when students opened the emails," he writes.

"There's a dearth of low-cost, scalable interventions in education, and behavioral economics can help. Identifying the crucial decision points—when applications are due, forms need to be filled out or school choices are made—and supplying the just-in-time support to families is key," Berman says (Bergman, The Conversation, 5/23). 

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