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The Higher Ed "Life Hack" for Nudging Students

by Keith P. O'Brien | September 4, 2018
The Higher Ed

Part Two of a Three Part Series on Nudge Technology and Higher Education

I’ve had the good fortune to work at a number of firms employing lots of Millennials. Not to mention, these firms are very smart, credentialed and tech savvy. They introduced me to a number of useful concepts, including a “life hack.” This noun is defined by the OED as: “a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one's time and daily activities in a more efficient way.” As a matter of fact, there are countless life hacks, and many do live up to their definition.

Now, many higher ed professionals would love the equivalent of life hacks to help them improve student decision making and behaviors. Again, in my previous blog, I suggested that applying nudging (behavioral economics) has tangible benefits for any administrator or institution looking to boost applications and matriculation rates. My higher ed life hack is how to use nudge application effectively through a relatively simple and battle-tested framework, EAST.

EAST: A framework for nudge application

To help change behavior, our nudges must be Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely (EAST). Established by the British government, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) developed this framework to employ nudges that changed citizens’ behaviors rather than relying largely on legislation and taxation to do so. EAST is a life hack because it incorporates the pragmatic approach from BIT’s work and the insight of Richard Thaler— a proponent of nudging and recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics. While there is trial and error involved with all nudges, EAST avoids us having to reinvent the wheel.

Let’s take a brief look at the four EAST principles

1. Make it Easy

As students interact with an institution (from the first point of contact to matriculation) they are making choices. Choices are highly likely to be selected if they require minimal effort. For instance, the Gates Foundation found that having tax preparers fill out the FAFSA with low-income filers increased the likelihood that they would go to college significantly.

2. Make it Attractive

This can be as simple as employing personalization by using the person’s name. Another way to do this would be ensuring financial aid award letters underscore next steps that pertain specifically to the student or upcoming deadlines.

3. Make it Social

People care about what their peers are doing and what they think of them. Constructing a choice that builds on people's social networks and concerns with normative behaviors are more effective. For instance, having parents of first-generation students sign a pledge to support their child’s college-going aspirations increases commitment to action.

4. Make it Timely

The time you choose to nudge someone towards a desired behavior is critical. For example, my favorite report is taken from BIT's work in higher ed in EnglandStudents who performed well in national exams and attended public high-schools with very low college participation rates got a letter. It was from Ben, a student at the University of Bristol, a highly selective school. Additionally, Ben explained that companies were attentive to the status of the university graduates attended, that elite universities award more aid and can be much cheaper for low-income students, and that he hadn’t known any of this at 16. Correspondingly, the results showed that recipients were much more likely to attend a select university. Also, the nudge for each of these enrolled students cost $58!

How to go EAST

Thinking through the EAST framework as an “enrollment life hack” is a necessary step for any higher ed professional who is considering applying behavioral economics. Nonetheless, it’s not a sufficient step because success requires that we first understand the behaviors we wish to influence. Therefore, let me conclude with a life hack about the EAST life hack: to learn about the four planning steps to implementing EAST (and a lot more about nudging, EAST and nudge tech in higher ed) download our free ebook below

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*Special thanks to our guest author, Keith P. O'Brien an expert edtech marketing consultant.

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