By Elizabeth Sayrs
At May’s commencement ceremony, I was honored and delighted to shake the hand of a graduating student I have known for over a decade. Having grown up in poverty, sometimes residing with a grandparent and living unsupported by parents throughout college, this student was now a college graduate with a job already lined up. It’s not a unique story at Ohio University, but one of many that demonstrates to me every day that education has the power to transform not only our students, but also their families and communities.
Located in the rural Appalachian foothills, Ohio University balances its role as a selective, nationally ranked research institution that has an increasingly diverse body of students from across the state, nation, and world, with a commitment to its mission of access for students in the region. I am as proud of that student’s graduation as I am of the ten OHIO students who were awarded a Fulbright this spring.
First-generation students make up approximately one-third of our entering class, with about 30 percent of entering students eligible for Pell Grants. Multiple studies have shown that persistence and completion gaps exist for these students nationally, as they do at Ohio University. We have made progress through our sustained commitment to implementing evidence-based student success initiatives, but we must continue to close the achievement gaps between our underrepresented populations and their peers to ensure that our dual commitment to academic excellence and access translates into lifelong opportunity for all students.
Scaling traditional student supports can be costly, so we have been working to translate recent research in behavioral science into campus initiatives that can reduce or eliminate these retention and completion gaps.
Two recent and ongoing projects involve using small, short-term behavioral interventions – so-called nudges – particularly to support retention and degree completion for underrepresented students and first-generation students. Behavioral nudging makes it easier for people to act in ways that benefit them without removing their ability to choose whether or how to act. For example, automatically enrolling employees in retirement contribution programs (while still allowing them to opt out), instead of requiring employees to take the extra step to enroll, is a nudge.
When it comes to student success, nudging can range from basic reminders of deadlines to more sophisticated strategies targeting the underlying psychological processes and cognitive biases that drive decision-making. While simple nudges can increase student engagement in the short term, more complex nudges can provide students with a new framework to understand and overcome the challenges they encounter during college, helping them alter their behavior both immediately and in the future.
First, we are honored to be a partner institution in Nudges to the Finish Line: Experimental Interventions to Prevent College Late Departure, a research project led by Dr. Benjamin Castleman at the University of Virginia, which explores whether text-based behavioral interventions can nudge more students who are close to graduating to go on to finish their degrees.
Through this research, we have already seen increases in our own students’ success and completion, particularly among underrepresented students. Students of color who received text-based nudges achieved a higher GPA and were almost 20 percentage points more likely to complete their degree over the year than the control group.
Second, we simultaneously began developing a new intervention for our incoming first-generation students (“first-gens”), called “Normalizing College Challenges.” While first-gen programming over the past five years has narrowed the gap between first-gen and continuing generation students who finish their first year in good academic standing, our first-gens still lag in both first-year retention (~7%) and completion (~9%) compared to continuing generation peers.
Clearly academic performance alone does not account for the retention gap. To address the non-academic factors that impact retention, we designed “Normalizing College Challenges” as a lay theory intervention. Lay theories are the frameworks that we use to help understand the cause and effect of circumstances we encounter in our daily lives; they guide our behaviors and responses, often without our awareness.
Lay theories can be particularly problematic for students from underrepresented groups: for example, a lay theory common in these populations – that “people like me don’t fit in at college” – can significantly affect persistence. Recent research suggests that helping students develop a new lay theory of their transition to college by reframing the challenges encountered as normal and expected can increase student success. Incorporating informational and interactive, text-based nudges into this intervention allows us to support our students in their development of these new lay theories throughout their first year of college.
“Normalizing College Challenges” has focused on four main areas in our pilot year:
So far, preliminary results indicate that first-gens receiving nudges have seen modest gains in fall-to-spring retention and GPA; in the fall, we’ll have data about the impact of this project on first-year retention. But we’ve already learned some interesting things about our first-gens this year: 80 percent chose to continue to receive the text-based nudges, 63 percent felt out of place in their first semester, and nearly half of our first-gens reported food insecurity, despite our residency requirement. These students were nudged to take advantage of the food pantries in our student center as well as other resources, and our Basic Needs OHIO initiative is working to develop more comprehensive supports.
We continue to analyze the data yielded through this unique approach to student success and will use our latest insights to refine the second year of the intervention for the cohort starting in fall 2018. If successful, these interventions would be expanded to all first-gens, and could be customized and expanded to other student groups, including those at our open-access regional campuses and in our growing online population. Our ultimate goal is to develop short-term, cost-effective, scalable interventions that have long lasting impacts on our students’ academic success, persistence, and degree completion.
Elizabeth Sayrs is Interim Executive Vice President and Provost at Ohio University.