How Nudging Students Helps Improve Higher Education Engagement

by Keith P. O'Brien | August 22, 2018
How Nudging Students Helps Improve Higher Education Engagement

Part One of a Three Part Series on Nudging and Higher Education

I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of higher ed professionals who work in enrollment and student success. Generally speaking, it seems that a sense of humor is almost a prerequisite to do these jobs. A prominent reason being so many of their responsibilities involve getting teenagers to both pay attention and complete complex tasks. Adding to the degree of difficulty, the students on your campus today have to be engaged on their own terms. The good news is that there’s a proven strategy to help students matriculate and persist. This is behavioral economics, which often called nudging.

Behavioral economics and nudge theory

Now, I suspect some readers’ eyes are starting to glaze over at the mention of another out of sector concept. But if you drive a car you’ve very likely experienced the power of behavioral economics.

You’re driving in a neighborhood and are not paying particular attention to the posted speed limit; it happens to us all. On the side of the road, you see a machine displaying the speed limit and a screen calculating your speed. Then you glance at your dash and find you are exceeding the speed limit. You start slowing down immediately and see the numbers tumble on the display. Then as you pass, the display indicates you are below the required speed limit and a smiley face flashes to confirm your decision.

To summarize, this is one example of nudging and why Richard Thaler got the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics. Thaler describes a nudge as: “any small feature of the environment that attracts people's attention and alters their behavior but does so in a way that doesn't compel.”

What is nudging?

Ultimately, our car driver example illustrates the two core principles underpinning behavioral economics:

  1. Recognize that humans do not always behave rationally when making decisions—improving any outcome requires using a more realistic model of human behavior.
  2. Enable people to make better decisions for themselves by changing the context in which they make choices.

The risks of ignoring nudging

To be clear, nudging is about empowering students to make choices that they feel are in their own best interest. But the scale of enrollment and retention problems indicates that many universities are not accommodating student behaviors effectively.

The urgency around adopting nudging reflects two interconnected forces that no institution is immune to:

  1. Generational shift: every prospect in your enrollment pipeline and increasingly more of the enrolled students are digital natives. Gen Z students are also the most diverse generation ever. They expect institutions to meet them where they are—adopting systems to provide personalization, accessibility, and interactivity across students’ preferred channels.
  2. Nudging technology: Gen Z’s dependence on a mosaic of platforms creates a trove of behavioral data that emerging technologies can use to distinguish patterns in behaviors that enable administrators and faculty to help student outcomes. Additionally, you should prepare to hear a lot more about “nudge tech” from texting to chatbots.

Still not sure about nudging your students to action?

Of course, applying behavioral economic principles via nudge tech to digital natives may evoke concerns over cost, complexity, and usefulness to both the student and the institution. In contrast, research has proven that nudging:

  1. Reduces summer melt among high school graduates. Furthermore, the students are primarily students of color and students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
  2. Uses automated and personalized text messaging as the “nudge tech”.
  3. Is a low cost per student, including hiring school counselors to support students needing extra support.

Above all, hitting enrollment goals is increasingly difficult and helping students persist and graduate in a timely manner continues to be challenging. Higher ed requires fresh approaches that incorporate the intrinsic behaviors and frailties of today's teenagers. Fortunately, nudging is such an approach and while not a silver bullet it can lessen your reliance on a sense of humor in attaining your objectives!

To Learn More

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

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