A Nobel Prize winner’s theory on behavioral economics is the inspiration for a program at the University of Washington Tacoma that aims to “nudge” students to keep them on track to graduate from college.
The program taps into the work of behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who won a Nobel Prize this year for work that documented how human behavior is irrational when it comes to money — and in many other life choices.
“When his (Thaler’s) book ‘Nudge’ first came out, I was really taken with the idea — if it works in so many different areas, why wouldn’t it work in higher education?” said Colleen Carmean, associate vice chancellor for academic innovation at UWT, who oversees the “nudge” program.
College students tend to forget things such as deadlines for signing up for next quarter’s classes, the importance of pacing out study sessions to get ready for the next midterm or the due date for financial-aid paperwork.
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These are among the reasons why students don’t graduate on time.
Many of Washington’s public and private colleges are working to try to improve four-year graduation rates, and many schools, including UWT, have succeeded at reducing the number of students who take five or six years to finish a degree.
UWT’s strategies include using carefully crafted messages, delivered by text or a phone app, to remind freshmen and upperclassmen of critical deadlines. The messages also offer encouragement, and even suggest practical, useful tips, such as time-management skills.
One study suggests it’s paying off.
Ben Castleman, of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, and Zack Mabel, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have found that “nudges” at nine large, public higher-education institutions across the country — including UWT — led to a 14 percent decrease in dropouts between the fall and spring semesters.
The nudges led to a 6 percent increase in college completion after one year, according to the researchers.
Nudges also have been proved effective in K-12 schools. In Tacoma and 16 other cities across the nation, school districts boosted student attendance by sending home “nudge” letters when students missed too many days of school.
UWT pays $14,000 a year for its reminders, which are produced by a Boston company, Persistence Plus,
The program has been going on for three years, and the messages are sent to freshmen throughout their first year of school.
In addition to the first-year “nudge” program, UWT has started using nudges to encourage students in their last years of college. That part of the program, which has been going for one year, is being paid for with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Why pay a company to do that work, when the school could just as easily send emails?
“We’re finding more and more — and I’m sure this is true in every industry — that people are overwhelmed by emails,” Carmean said. “We have to meet them where they are — and they’re not in email.”
Today, the text message or app pop-up seems more personal than email, and does a better job of grabbing a student’s attention, Carmean said. Students can opt out of receiving them, but most don’t.
Carmean acknowledges that a few years from now, these messages might not work as well, especially if texts or pop-ups become ubiquitous.
If that happens, she said, educators will have to come up with a new way to nudge students along.