From Application to Graduation- Behavioral Science Insights For Building Student Success, 2:30-3:30

By Janette Martinez, 2016 Dallas Martin Endowment (DME) Policy Intern

On Tuesday afternoon, ideas42 shared their findings on how to use behavioral science to remove barriers to completion. Ethan Fletcher, vice president, and Dan Connolly, senior associate, from ideas42 shared findings and recommendations from their previous experiments.  

The organization has worked with seven public universities and community colleges on 12 behavioral sciences projects.

The first project that ideas42 highlighted took place at Arizona State University (ASU) and focused on FAFSA application completion. At ASU, only 18 percent of students filed the FAFSA by the priority deadline and many never file which has implications for the amount of money students receive. For the project, ideas42 diagnosed six primary barriers to filing:

  1. Students don’t understand what information they need to file the FAFSA.
  2. Students don’t adequately plan to collect the information they’ll need once they know.
  3. Parent info is difficult to obtain and may require a significant effort by both student and parent.
  4. Priority deadline was not salient at the right time.
  5. Students held an inaccurate mental model of who receives financial aid.
  6. Students misperceived social norms of how many students submit the FAFSA.

Ideas42 designed one stream of eight emails that went out directly to students over the course of two months, from January 1 to March 1. Another set of emails were designed to send to parents so they could coordinate with their children to file the FAFSA. After designing the campaigns, ASU’s 60,000 students were randomly placed into four groups to look at the impact of the different level of interventions: one group received both parent and student emails, one group received just parent emails, one group received just student emails, and the last group received no emails.

Results for groups varied based on the emails received. The results showed that 29 percent of students in the control group filed by the priority deadline, up from the 18 percent completion rate before the project. Forty percent of students who received only a student email filed their FAFSA by the priority deadline, and 44 percent of students whose parents received emails filed by the priority deadline. Fifty percent of students who received both the student and parent emails filed by the priority deadline, a 72 percent increase compared to before the experiment. The researchers took away that communicating with parents can be a powerful tactic, students liked the aggressive messaging strategy, and it is possible to increase priority deadline FAFSA applications at minimal cost.

The second experiment that ideas42 highlighted was conducted at San Francisco State University (SFSU) aimed at increasing persistence. At SFSU, 18 percent of students dropped out before their second year. Common issues for students include that new students face multiple obstacles alone, the commuter campus creates additional distance, students rarely receive positive feedback, and students wonder if they are college material. In response, ideas42 designed a two-pronged intervention with the intention of showing adversity as the norm for first-year students. First, they framed the SFSU experience through video messages delivered by a representative array of students followed by a self-affirmation exercise. Second, students received reinforcing messages during the year to deliver self-affirmation messages at stressful times such as finals. These messages were repeated via text and email and included timely reminders to sign up for clubs or activities.

Once the project was rolled out, 95 percent of students watched the video and completed the self-affirmation survey. Eighty-three percent of those students also provided their phone numbers so they could receive follow up texts. Among students in a group called Fall Metro Academy, which is comprised of first-generation, low-income students, there was about a 10 percent increase in persistence after receiving the message.

A main takeaway from the interventions that ideas42 has designed is the importance of communication. “The battle for student attention is fierce, but winnable,” said Fletcher. They shared four principles around good, behavioral science-driven communication. First, communication must have good timing. The most effective deadlines are those that balance time and urgency. Second, good communication is personal. Just adding a photo of the sender or using informal language can increase response rates. Third, emails should clearly organize information. The researchers noted that people don’t always read top to bottom or left to right, which is important to keep in mind when choosing where to put information in emails. The most important information should be at the top, they found. Fourth, eliminate hassle factors, which are the small barriers that make things more difficult, such as putting stamps on pre-addressed envelopes.


Publication Date: 7/12/2016

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