Meet Students Where They Are: Behavioral Insights to Increase College Completion

Across the country, millions of students have returned to college campuses to continue their postsecondary education. Students have moved back into dorms, reacquainted with friends, started another semester of courses. As someone who has worked with students at every sector of higher education over the course of my career—community colleges up through Harvard University—, I know there is no lack of talent, motivation, and aspiration at America’s colleges and universities.


The unfortunate truth, however, is that a substantial share of students in college this fall won’t actually make it across the graduation stage. This is true even for students who’ve accumulated most of the credits they need for their diploma. Recent research shows that upwards of 30 percent of students with 75 percent of the credits typically needed for a college degree, withdraw prior to completing their program.


Students in college face a series of complex decisions and complicated processes—everything from figuring out which of the hundreds of courses available in a given term satisfy graduation and major requirements, to renewing their financial aid on an annual basis. Yet, especially as the profile of the college populations shifts to include more adult and part-timers, students often are spread very thin across academic, family, work, and social commitments, and have limited attention and cognitive bandwidth to devote to these challenging but critical decisions. And at the broad access institutions that serve the majority  of college students in America, advising resources to navigate these decisions are often severely limited, and often declining over time as states reduce their appropriations to higher education.


To increase student success in college, we need strategic, low-cost interventions that meet students where they are and support them to make active and informed decisions.


One increasingly popular approach is to communicate important information and offer advising assistance through channels that students engage with on a daily basis. My colleagues and I have found, for instance, that using text messaging to encourage community college freshmen to renew their financial aid can increase sophomore year persistence by almost 25 percent.


But using more effective communications channels like texting is one of only multiple creative approaches researchers have pursued to meet people where they are at critical junctures in their postsecondary pathway.  In a seminal study, Eric Bettinger and colleagues worked with H & R Block to integrate financial aid application assistance into the income tax preparation process. Families going to H & R Block for their taxes have all the information they needed to apply for financial aid; by meeting families where they were, and with well-designed software, the researchers were able to increase financial aid applications among low-income families by a substantial rate, and increased the share of students completing at least two years of college by nearly 30 percent. Researchers at The College Transition Collaborative leveraged the online orientation that many colleges now require students to complete to deliver an intervention aimed at addressing doubts and anxieties students had about their transition to and potential for success in college. Incoming students read narratives from upperclass students about how they initially encountered challenges, but over time they experienced success and a sense of community at the college. This brief intervention led to a substantial improvement in students’ first year academic performance.


These approaches stand in contrast to the “if we build it, they will come” strategy that many colleges pursue to communicate information and resources to students. To help students navigate the increasingly complex landscape of choices in college, we need to be more proactive and creative, identifying touch points to meet students where they are and support their continued progress towards a degree.


Benjamin L. Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and author of The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education

The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series.