- Nudges, or digital alerts designed to guide students through some element of the college experience, are effective when used with groups of hundreds or thousands of students, but scaling beyond that has been a challenge.
- To learn why, a new study examined two experiments that together nudged more than 800,000 students through mailers, emails and text messages to complete their FAFSA forms — efforts the researchers found had no effect on students' use of financial aid or college enrollment and persistence.
- The researchers suspect that's because students viewed the messaging as generic, but they contend involving local groups and using data to offer a higher degree of personalization and micro-targeted outreach could help.
"While scaling interventions locally is a costlier and more labor-intensive approach to scale, by maintaining a stronger connection to students as recipients, the sustenance of positive impacts could justify greater costs," the researchers wrote in their report, which was published through the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
The researchers are not the first to examine whether nudges could be effective at scale. In June, the College Board published a study on a similarly sized group of students, examining the impact of nudges such as text messages and fee waivers on enrollment.
While that study found an "extremely small" improvement in college quality for African American and Hispanic students, it concluded that the nudges didn't change students' enrollment patterns.
"It may be that when you're working with a really, really large group of students, there needs to be an additional layer of personalization," Oded Gurantz, a co-author of the College Board study, told Education Dive in June.
The NBER study examined two cohorts of students: those who registered with the Common Application and those who applied to college through a state-sponsored portal that funneled applications to institutions throughout the state.
The outreach included variations in how the content was framed and delivered, as well as offers of one-on-one advising in some cases. Students also received numerous reminders. But none of these variations appeared to make a difference, the researchers concluded, suggesting the lack of interest may have been because the messages were "primarily generic and one-way," which is "one of the limitations of a global approach" to nudging.
The ability for a college or local organizations to forge stronger connections with students was a factor both the College Board and NBER reports, respectively, acknowledged as a challenge to scaling nudges.
And while the College Board's report suggested nudges offering "human assistance" can have a bigger impact, the NBER report noted it would be difficult for an organization operating a large-scale nudging campaign to meaningfully provide that level of service to hundreds of thousands of students.
The latter suggested large-scale nudging campaigns use supplemental data to develop micro-targeted messaging and to infuse their outreach with higher degrees of personalization, mirroring common social media practices.
To be sure, colleges are finding success with targeted nudges. Some are using them to reach students who left school without completing a credential. Others are implementing them to reduce summer melt rates or to encourage students to re-enroll. But doing so mindfully is key to not overwhelming students, nudging experts say.