Nudging Financially Insecure College Students to Success

This guest perspective is written byRoss E. O’Hara, Ph.D., Behavioral Researcher at Persistence Plus.

Imagine going to college yet living on the brink of financial disaster.

That’s the situation in which Terry* found himself during his first semester at a community college in northeastern Ohio. Initially excited about starting college and earning his associate’s degree, he quickly became pessimistic, texting to us by the seventh week of the semester “I used to be bad at failing now I’m even better at it!” We could see early on that Terry was preoccupied by whether he could pay for tuition, food, and rent. When we asked Terry what stressed him out the most, he replied, “Not having a job and living alone. I’m running out of money and I’m scared I’ll be homeless.”

Although Terry did find a part-time job, and we connected him to his college’s immediate need grant program, his financial problems are far from unique. Take 10 random college students, and chances are that 9 will be employed, 5 will receive no financial support from parents or family, 4 will attend college part-time, and 2 will be raising children. To finish college while navigating the challenges of everyday life, these students need to plan well and access resources designed to keep them enrolled—with very little room for error. At Persistence Plus, we’ve spent the last 7 years using behavioral science and text messaging to support college students through difficult times so they can stay in school and earn a life-changing credential.

Caption: Graphical depiction of today’s college students’ demographics and financial barriers to success.

Behavioral scientists have developed and tested a range of widely adaptable strategies to remedy persistent problems and increase social good. These low-cost, real-world interventions, known collectively as nudging, leverage human psychology to simplify decisions in an increasingly complex world and keep people moving toward their personal goals. Today’s college students need this support more than ever, as few are any longer afforded the privilege of focusing solely on their studies. Two important ways in which we nudge students facing financial insecurity is to connect them with resources that will improve their chances of success, and help them make plans to maximally benefit from those resources.

Accessing Resources

One of the largest obstacles to college success today is financial insecurity. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice estimates that 36% of college students are food insecure, 36% lack reliable housing, and 9% have experienced homelessness in the past year. At Persistence Plus, we’ve witnessed the significant toll that financial insecurity takes on college retention. Our analysis of over 2,600 students found that those who express difficulty paying for food, transportation, or housing are 9 percentage points less likely to remain enrolled.

Caption: Percentage of students (N = 2,694) returning for the next term after reporting financial insecurity (i.e., difficulty paying for food, housing, or transportation). Source: Persistence Plus.

Colleges and community organizations across the country are responding to these challenges. Many colleges now offer on-campus food pantries and emergency aid to pay for unexpected financial shortfalls. Single Stop, a non-profit working to alleviate poverty in the U.S., has built a “one-stop shop” in many colleges to connect students with public food and housing benefits. And Schoolhouse Connection provides scholarships and counseling to college students who have experienced homelessness. While programs like these help many students stay in school, many others withdraw without ever utilizing them.

Asking for help carries a burden of shame for students who have been ingrained to pull up their bootstraps and get things done on their own. A recent federal report on college food insecurity notes that 80% of colleges surveyed struggled with “overcoming the stigma some students associate with accepting help for their basic needs.” Nudging can alleviate this stigma and break down the psychological barriers to accessing resources. After we nudged students at Lorain County Community College, a large community college near Cleveland, Ohio, the Commodore Cupboard food pantry reported a 51% increase in usage over the next month. Changing the norms around food pantries let students know that their peers face these same problems and that it’s perfectly okay to ask for help. Likewise, we’ve seen consistent upticks in students inquiring about emergency aid after nudges normalized requesting those funds.

Caption: Example interaction from the Persistence Plus platform encouraging students facing food insecurity to seek help.

Nudging can also reveal student issues that might otherwise go unnoticed and unaddressed. Cristina*, a former foster youth attending community college in southern California, had trouble attending class because she couldn’t pay to replace her car’s bald and unsafe tires. Fearing judgment, Cristina had not disclosed her challenge to her advisor, and was thus unaware that the college had funds available for just this situation. But when Cristina revealed this information to the Persistence Plus platform, we were able to connect her to her advisor to buy new tires and get her back in class and on track to a degree.

Making a Plan

Even when students are motivated to seek help, life gets in the way. Not only is time a precious commodity for college students, but experiencing financial pressure also limits one’s ability to think long-term and plan ahead. However, when people make concrete and detailed plans, known as implementation intentions, they become more likely to complete their goals. The more specific these plans are—including when, where, and how to complete important tasks, as well as contingency plans for expected obstacles—the more effective they become.

In our work with both two-year and four-year institutions, students nudged to take advantage of free academic support are 5x more likely to visit the tutoring center and spend up to 5x more time in tutoring than those who are not nudged. We also leverage this strategy to motivate students to study regularly, meet with academic counselors, and renew their FAFSA. We’re working to expand these efforts to help students take advantage of public resources that can keep them fed and housed during college.

Caption: Example interaction from the Persistence Plus platform encouraging students to make an implementation intention to visit their tutoring center.

Overall Impact of Nudging

The Persistence Plus model provides real-time, low-touch support to guide college students through their toughest challenges. Our intelligent software uses student demographics and responses to target interactive and personalized text messages to each individual. Whether students face a lack of money, self-doubt about their ability to graduate, or the feeling that they just don’t belong in college, we have evidence-based nudges that provide the support that students need to keep going.

Caption: The Persistence Plus model of student support.

Our college partners have seen how nudges can increase student success. In a gold-standard experimental trial, first-year community college students who were nudged over the summer were more likely to return for a second year by 10 percentage points compared to a randomized control group. Other experimental evidence has shown:

Caption: Percentage of students (N = 1,942) returning for the fall term after receiving summer nudges. Source: Persistence Plus.

Moreover, Persistence Plus has seen gains in retention among low-income students recruited by college access organizations; former foster youth; working adults returning to college after substantial time away from education, and students of color at colleges across the country. Nudging is becoming a powerful tool for all those whose mission it is to decrease equity gaps in higher education and help more people to earn a college degree.

A Call to Action

College students face more challenges to completion than ever before, including situations that nobody should have to endure: poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Efforts are underway from colleges and community organizations to alleviate these burdens, but we need better engagement strategies to ensure that students utilize these services to their fullest. Some action steps that your college or organization can take:

1. Assess the problem. Are you unsure the extent to which your students experience financial insecurity? Discussing these issues with them is a good start, but because of the stigma associated with poverty, these conversations are likely to undersize the problem. If you want to be more systematic, Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice has published a how-to guide for conducting an anonymous survey on basic needs insecurity.

2. Build resources. Once you’ve sized your students’ needs, create resources to meet those demands. If students are going hungry, take steps to open a food pantry: the College and University Food Bank Alliance provides resources to help you get started. For other financial exigencies, fund an emergency aid program. This NASPA case study from Seminole State University is a useful guide on how to initiate and administer these types of funds. SchoolHouse Connection has published tip sheets on everything from identifying students experiencing homelessness to supporting them through comprehensive campus-based programs. Don’t be afraid to start small; these investments often have humble beginnings but can quickly pay large dividends in terms of student success.

3. Use what’s out there. Colleges spend a lot of energy making sure students complete their FAFSA and receive tuition support, yet typically not so much on other kinds of public support like SNAP, TANF, or housing assistance. Partnerships with government offices, community organizations, or SingleStop can provide students (and you) with guidance on how to complete these complex applications and help to stabilize students’ financial situations.

4. Leverage behavioral science. Finally, nudge! It’s often the students who need the most help who also need a nudge to get it. Get in touch with me to learn more about collaborating with Persistence Plus to implement behavioral science strategies to improve student retention. Or if you feel ready to tackle this on your own, here’s a useful guide to nudging from the University of Toronto. These techniques will get more students to use campus resources, helping to keep them enrolled and building the case to expand those programs in the future.

*Not students’ real names, in order to protect their privacy.