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Mobile Supports for Community College Students: Fostering Persistence Through Behavioral Nudges

Learning Abstract

June 2014, Volume 17, Number 6

By Adrienne Maslin, Jill Frankfort, and Margaret Jaques-Leslie

Between juggling coursework, family, and 30 hours a week at a job, many community college students struggle with time and motivation. But for students at Middlesex Community College in Connecticut this semester, one solution for managing time and boosting motivation came from a source they frequently use already: their cell phones. A cohort of over 300 students at Middlesex are enrolled in Persistence Plus, a mobile support platform that provides research-based behavioral nudges to foster positive study habits, enhance motivation, and increase goal commitment. Of the student cohort enrolled in Persistence Plus at Middlesex, early results show a 7-percentage point fall-to-spring retention rate increase over the general population—a significant indicator that reaching students at the right time with the right message can impact their commitment and persistence.

Finding New Ways to Reach Students

Founded in 1968 in central Connecticut, Middlesex Community College serves 3,000 students across two main locations in Middletown and Meriden. In 2012 and 2013, it was selected as a "Great College to Work For" by The Chronicle of Higher Education (2012, 2013). Middlesex Community College offers 50 degree and certificate programs, with the largest number of students pursuing general studies, criminal justice, human services, and accounting majors. In the full student population, 56 percent receive financial aid and 29 percent are students of color. Seventy percent of students are employed, and the average age is 26. In spring 2014, the institution had a 2.5 percent enrollment increase and welcomed a record spring-semester high of 1,627 full-time equivalent students (Plake, 2014). Part of this rise has taken place in online courses, which are up 25 percent, and in full-time students, which are up 5.7 percent. Middlesex Community College President Anna Wasescha welcomed the challenge of increased and shifting enrollments, saying, "We are delighted that enrollment is up this year and we're determined to keep enhancing the student experience so that more and more students succeed at realizing their dreams and ambitions by earning a college degree from Middlesex. We knew that reaching them in creative ways would be hugely important in achieving this goal." After careful research, Middlesex leadership began the collaboration with Persistence Plus.

Nudges: Format, Function, and Behavioral Research

Persistence Plus uses behavioral research to develop personalized "nudges"—delivered via text message or through a smartphone app—to foster behaviors and attitudes associated with student achievement, persistence, and retention. Nudges are tailored based on student demographics and data, and vary in format. For example, before key exams and registration deadlines, Persistence Plus asks students to identify a time and place to study or sign up. Research shows that committing to a specific date and time to perform a task increases the likelihood that the task will be completed (Koestner, Lekes, Powers, & Chicoine, 2002). Other nudges promote help-seeking behavior and encourage students to take advantage of campus resources. They provide students with real-time, relevant information such as, "Get ready for your math test. The CLC and the Meriden Center offer math tutoring on Tuesday morning. Students who have gone have found this support valuable." Studies have found that just-in-time nudges (Castleman & Page, 2013) and social norming levers ("Other students have...") are powerful means of motivating individuals to participate in a specific activity (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). Steele and Aronson (1995) have shown that student fears about confirming a negative stereotype about their group can be harmful to academic performance. Some nudges are designed to minimize stereotype threat or change other mindsets that can prevent students from succeeding. The platform also delivers "LifeBits," nudges that present real vignettes from students of similar backgrounds who overcame specific college challenges. LifeBits are based on growing evidence of positive academic benefits from showing first-generation students and students of color stories of students like them encountering and overcoming issues in colleges (Walton & Cohen, 2011).

At Middlesex Community College, one of the most replied-to nudges asks students to rate how they are feeling at particular points in the terms. These mobile check-in nudges provide additional data from which to personalize future nudges based on the inputs students share via texting or responding through the app, along with their responses to other question nudges: The more a student responds to questions, the more adept the system becomes in supporting and motivating that particular student. But nudges can have powerful impact even without active interaction from the student. A 28-year-old female first-generation general studies major at Middlesex Community College who hadn't responded to nudges explained, saying "When you are feeling bad, it motivates you. It helps you see how you are doing and how you can get through challenges…The stories of other students are motivating because it makes you think that you can do it too." This student observation dovetails with behavioral research on seemingly small nudges that have had substantial effects. For example, hotel guests who were told that the majority of the guests in the room they are staying in have reused their towels had significantly higher rates of towel reuse than guests who are simply told about the environmental benefits (Goldstein et al., 2008). By providing nudges that offer context for success and foster behaviors correlated with persistence, the Persistence Plus platform has the capacity to reach students nimbly and at scale.

Connecting Students to Resources

Middlesex Community College, like many community colleges, offers a wide variety of resources, including career counseling and tutoring, but sometimes found that the students who need them do not access them. So, to encourage positive academic traits such as resiliency and helpful behaviors such as taking advantage of free campus tutoring, Persistence Plus sends nudges that explain how other students benefit from resources. For a 19-year-old female first-generation student at Middlesex, this kind of framing helped motivate her to pursue extra help: "…[I] never knew that about 80% of students who get good grades wind up using the tutoring center. [That nudge] made me not feel like a loser—but yeah, like everyone else is struggling with the same stuff."

Struggling students are also triaged by the Persistence Plus platform to in-person high-touch supports. Students who share they are having trouble or who respond with a low rating to a check-in question receive a response that asks more about their general state and any obstacles they are facing. If the situation seems right, Persistence Plus may ask the student, "Can we connect you with a helpful Middlesex Community College staffer?" and then pass the student's contact information to Middlesex Community College's retention specialist. This kind of close partnership between Persistence Plus and Middlesex Community College allows retention specialist Judy Mazgulski to engage with struggling students weeks before their struggles might otherwise be noticed.

Cohort Population

The Persistence Plus cohort is comprised of approximately 300 Middlesex Community College students who signed up through an in-person registration drive on campus in fall 2013. Each participating student receives approximately one nudge per school day. Figure 1 shows the demographics of the cohort.

Figure 1. Demographics of Persistence Plus Cohort

Middlesex Community College Persistence Plus Cohort

First-Generation

31 percent

Female

51 percent

Age 25 and Older

18 percent

Students of Color

41 percent

Student populations that have historically lower rates of college completion have been among the most active users of the Persistence Plus platform. During the fall term, the most active Persistence Plus users at Middlesex Community College were 23 percent more likely to be part-timers, 20 percent more likely to be Hispanic, 18 percent more likely to be students of color, and 13 percent more likely to be older students. While more research is needed, it seems possible that the private support that Persistence Plus offers makes potentially at-risk students more comfortable sharing challenges and seeking help.

Retention Results and Considerations for Future Usage

The Persistence Plus cohort at Middlesex show a 7-percentage point higher fall-to-spring retention rate compared to the general population. For an institution serving 3,000 students, this difference could mean an additional 210 students retained per year. Ever more striking is that the retention rate of first-generation college-goers in the Persistence Plus cohort—a population that has, on average, twice the rate of attrition compared to students who are not first in their family to attend college (Chen, 2005)—was 78 percent. Determined to engage students and guide them to their goals, the Middlesex administration is encouraged by these early results and eager to reach more students through the Persistence Plus platform.

These early data from Persistence Plus and Middlesex Community College demonstrate promising correlation between timely mobile behavioral nudges and student persistence. As a college degree continues to be the primary path to upward economic mobility, and as learners enter and return to college in greater numbers than ever, higher education faces the growing challenge of supporting students from orientation to graduation. Higher education needs new ideas in learner support, achievement, and retention; close partnership between Middlesex Community College and Persistence Plus shows the particular promise of mobile behavioral interventions to reach students with the right message at the right time.

References

Castleman, B. L., & Page, L. C. (2013). Summer nudging: Can personalized text messages and peer mentor outreach increase college going among low-income high school graduates? EdPolicyWorks Working Paper Series No. 9. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia.

Chen, X. (2005). First-generation students in postsecondary education: A look at their college transcripts. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. (2012). Great colleges to work for 2012. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Great-Colleges-to-Work-For/133333/#id=big-table

The Chronicle of Higher Education. (2013). Great colleges to work for 2013. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Great-Colleges-to-Work-For/133333/#id=big-table

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

Koestner, R., Lekes, N., Powers, T. A., & Chicoine, E. (2002). Attaining personal goals: Self concordance plus implementation intentions equals success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1),

Plake, R. (2014, February 19). MxCC announces record high for spring 2014 full time equivalent enrollment [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://mxcc.edu/blogs/mxcc-announces-record-high-for-spring-2014-full-time-equivalent-enrollment/

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes among minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

Dr. Adrienne Maslin is Dean of Students and Chief Student Affairs Officer at Middlesex Community College in Connecticut. Jill Frankfort is President and Co-Founder of Persistence Plus. Margaret Jaques-Leslie is a current master's student in Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a fellow at Persistence Plus.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 05/27/2014 at 8:38 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -