Creating Social Change and Student Success

Inside Higher Ed
Kevin Kruger and Catherine Parkay suggest three ways higher education can successfully use behavioral science to increase student completion.

In 2001, more than a quarter of American teenagers smoked. Smoking-related illness was the leading cause of preventable death in America, yet the public health community remained unable to achieve a large-scale reduction in teen smoking. Even explicit warnings about the deadly consequences of lighting up seemed to have only a negligible impact.

It wasn’t until a team of social marketers, working with the American Legacy Foundation, tried an unorthodox approach that real progress was made to combat this seemingly intractable challenge. Instead of threatening teens, they used a social call to action, encouraging youth to reject manipulation by tobacco corporations. Teens, research found, craved a feeling of social acceptance mixed with rebellion — and the anticorporate message fulfilled that desire. Thanks in part to efforts like the truth campaign and the application of behavioral science, public health leaders have been able to significantly reduce teen smoking.

Behavioral science has gone mainstream across all sectors and represents a powerful underlying force in consumer life, from browsing music to planning travel online. Improving social outcomes sometimes requires counterintuitive tactics. Higher education professionals, too, have an opportunity to deploy behavior science principles and techniques to help solve the seminal challenges in postsecondary education: increasing completion and closing achievement gaps.

Here are a few simple strategies for applying those principles and techniques to improve student support and nurture stronger outcomes.

Flip the script on stigma and peer pressure. Students who don’t succeed in college and graduate might have done so if they’d only received the proper support. Colleges and universities usually offer that support, but one of the challenges facing student affairs professionals is that a stigma is often attached to such services. Students feel that taking advantage of support is a sign of weakness or defeat — or that support is something to seek out only if you’re in significant trouble.

Yet the reality is that all students, even the most high-performing ones, can benefit from a helping hand, and that it’s typical and beneficial to engage with these services. To alleviate stigma and promote the use of support services, student affairs professionals can use data and information about student peer groups to make support-seeking behavior the norm, not an exception.

For example, one institution texts incoming students a graphic showing why current students reach out to student affairs staff. The reasons included needing a sounding board for an important decision, wanting to explore career options before selecting a major and desiring to celebrate an important academic milestone. Students have also received texts with factoids, such as the percentage of peers who already contacted their advisers.

In addition, the college shares the results of a survey showing that students who had at least one meeting with their success coach were less stressed and had higher grade point averages. By pre-empting concerns of students who might look at campus services as a crutch, institutions can promote higher overall engagement across a broader range of students.

Use nudges to stimulate contingency planning. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure applies as strongly to student success as it does in health and wellness. That is especially true for the growing majority of post-traditional students who are either first-generation college-goers or are balancing their studies with busy lives full of work, family and other commitments. A simple invitation to do a little contingency planning can make all the difference before life events threaten to derail a student’s progress.

One student services team approaches this challenge by providing simple planning tools: short videos combined with a worksheet or checklist. Those resources support students in developing plans for common issues, such as unplanned expenses, loss of child care services or a work-related emergency that might derail their participation in classes, campus activities or homework. To encourage students to engage with those resources, they send text messages along the lines of, “Want to be less stressed and avoid life getting in the way of your studies? Students who spent five minutes with this simple planning tool say it made a big difference.”

Make motivation and reflection a daily part of the student experience. One thing is certain: every student’s academic journey has its ups and downs, and quitting becomes an easy way out when goals are abstract, unclear or distant. Staying connected to one’s core motivation for pursuing education and taking time to reflect on the wins and lessons is vital for success.

One student success coach we know has some handy tips for keeping students motivated and connected to their purpose. She asks incoming students to find an image that represents how their life will be better with a credential — maybe a photo related to their dream job or a picture of the kids they’ll be offering a better life. She then has them make it the home screen image on their phone, so they are reminded every day of why the struggle matters. To encourage reflection during the year, she often sends her students a text such as, “Did you know that Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school varsity basketball team until his junior year? Think of a time you didn’t hit your goal. How did it make you stronger?”

When a student’s goals are clearly grounded in their own interests and passions, overcoming challenges becomes its own reward.

These are just a few examples of the many innovative ways that student affairs professionals around the country are applying behavioral science to college access, retention and completion efforts. Slowly but surely, student success experts and researchers are beginning to see these efforts pay off. For example, economists Caroline Hoxby from Stanford University and Sarah Turner from the University of Virginia and Stanford University are showing how behavioral science principles can improve student enrollment decisions. Similarly, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Up Next initiative is entering its third year of using the same mobile messaging tactics used by successful tech companies to streamline the financial aid and enrollment process and reduce summer melt.

To be sure, achieving social change on a large scale starts with individual behavior. If there were ever a challenge that called out for such an approach, improving college completion would be it. By embracing the surprising insights and sometimes counterintuitive choices that behavioral science has to offer, higher education practitioners are tackling education’s biggest challenges at their roots — and beginning to show real progress.

Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Catherine Parkay is research programs director at InsideTrack.

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed on December 18, 2017


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