The smallest tweaks in choice environment  influence our decisions on a daily basis: we’re more likely to eat fruit if it’s presented at eye level, get a flu shot if it’s complimentary at the pharmacy, or even recycle when its bin is bigger than the trash.

Nudges are also making an impact across Higher Education. From applying and enrolling in college to learning and graduating, nudges are a crucial variable because they can prime students to proactively tackle small challenges before they become big problems.

Nudge for good

Not all nudges are created equal. Whenever Nobel-Prize winner Richard Thaler signs a copy of his book Nudge he makes sure to add, “nudge for good.”

Good nudges, according to Thaler, abide by these three principles:

  1. They are transparent and never misleading
  2. They are easy to opt out of with as little as one click
  3. There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged

Within the private sector you’ll see plenty of bad nudging, where agencies deceive audiences for their own gains. When trying to read an article online, for example, you might be required to sign up for a monthly subscription (where opting out is no simple task). You’ve probably run in to questionable nudges when flying – when purchasing a plane ticket you may have had to choose insurance, finding it hard to ignore the ‘yes’ option when it’s highlighted as ‘RECOMMENDED’.

Small nudges with major impacts

What’s true for commercial nudges is also true for education: it’s not enough to make choices available and hope people choose wisely.

For example, Austin Community College used creative nudges to get more of San Marco’s largely Latino student population into college. They first made it a requirement for high school graduates to apply, effectively guaranteeing acceptance since the only pre-requisites were obtaining a high school diploma. For an incentive to graduate they cited the income gains from attending college and hooked students on being able to afford the universal symbol of teenage freedom – the automobile. They administered free standardized admissions exams at San Marco High School, distributed financial aid information to all families, and even offered complementary tax consultant sessions for parents on the weekends. In one year, the percentage of San Marcos High students who went to Texas colleges rose by 11%.

University of Pittsburgh professor Lindsay Page has spent years researching how small nudges can improve how students apply to college. Through a series of low-cost interventions, school districts and postsecondary institutions can alter the way they present tasks like completing applications, applying for financial aid, submitting forms, and registering for classes to drastically increase completion rates and outcomes.

For example, when low-income SAT takers were given an additional four free score reports to be used anytime during high school, this translated to a two-percentage-point increase in college attendance and completion and 3,000 more bachelor’s degree earners each year.

Financial aid is another roadblock that nudges can influence. Eligible students forgo significant amounts of financial aid every year simply because they aren’t applying for it. In 2017, this translated to $2.3 billion in federal financial aid going unclaimed.

In some communities as many as 40% of college-bound students don’t end up going simply because they lack a support system to guide them through matriculation tasks. Small nudges like the targeted reminders and tutorials our partner colleges send through their Mascot Bots have shown to reduce summer melt by an average of 20% and as high as 40%.

 The wrong side of student nudges 

Nudges can help students considerably, but they can also impede progress. Sometimes institutional nudges come off as too strong, overcomplicating instead of simplifying. For example, the current system of loans and grants often trips up students and families by weighing potential losses instead of potential gains.

In other instances, nudges for students are who already on-track might be cause for confusion or even lead them to opt out of support before they actually need it. If a student continues to receive reminders about submitting immunization forms after they’ve already taken care of it, how seriously will they take future notifications? Perhaps more importantly, how will the student be motivated to solve unaddressed concerns?

Good nudges require a simple and clear message to capture a student’s attention, providing relevant information when the student needs it the most, and by mapping out a plan, the nudge motivates action.

 Nudge smarter, not harder 

Text messaging has proven to be one of the most effective nudge platforms to put deadlines and challenges on students’ radars and connect students with one-on-one support. Until recently, however, it’s been a difficult initiative to scale without compromising staff availability.

We designed AdmitHub’s conversational platform to address this very challenge by making nudges more student-centric. Thanks to artificial intelligence, colleges can keep the conversation going and students can proactively seek more information. Coupled with targeted human intervention, conversational AI has shown to quadruple the impact of nudges with the institutions we’ve partnered with.

Allegheny delegated event outreach to ‘Chompers’ to more than double registrations from the previous two yield events combined. Wayne State’s bot ‘W the Warrior’ helped boost enrollment by 14.6%, yielding a significantly diverse class that saw 18% more first gen students and 13% more pell-eligible students. In one year at Wyoming, Cowboy Joe’s targeted nudges helped reduce summer melt by a whopping 32%!

Austin, a student from our very first partner Georgia State, summed up the influence of Pounce’s nudges by saying,“It feels like you’re doing it yourself, it’s like a tool. If you have to rely on somebody else it creates a sense of dependency.”

By establishing two-way channels for proactive guidance and support, conversational AI has helped colleges nudge smarter.

 Growing impact 

The foundation of our simple, seamless, student-centric channel is our ever-growing knowledge base containing thousands of frequently-asked questions.  As students ask more questions, our virtual assistants learn to nudge more effectively.

As we continue to help nudge more students to college, we’re also committed to seeing students all the way through to graduation. Researchers are testing the implications of nudges on academic success, but the results suggest we’re still scratching the surface. In one study that focused on improving study habits, the intervention appeared successful when most students had set up calendars on their phones and were responding to weekly messages. However, further data revealed these students only increased study time by one or two hours per week instead of ten, which was the improvement time the intervention had targeted.

Fueling academic achievement will require institutions to rethink how they’re motivating students. We’re excited to share the results of our partnerships as we gather more data on retention initiatives across Higher Ed.

Nudges are a crucial recipe for student success in part because they establish a path of least resistance for both students and colleges. We’ll dive deeper on this topic in our next post on student-centric communication.