Barriers to College Success and the Benefits of Technological “Nudging”

by Lindsay C. Page

Assistant Professor Lindsay C. Page.

All along the college-going pipeline, students’ educational goals often exceed their outcomes. At first blush, high rates of failure to transition to or complete college may seem surprising, given that the returns to earning a postsecondary degree remain substantial. However, a closer look reveals the many factors that can hinder students from realizing and succeeding in their college aspirations. More students aspire to college than complete the application process. Even among those who apply and are accepted to college and who have a plan for college in place at the time of high school graduation, large shares of students succumb to “summer melt” and fail to matriculate. For those who matriculate to college, many do not continue to degree completion.

After entering college, there are many decisions and actions—some complex and others straightforward—that “add up” to postsecondary success. For example, students must:

  • Stay on top of registering for and completing classes;
  • Meet with advisors or other support professionals on campus;
  • Manage financial decisions and paying for college; and
  • Manage aspects of life outside of the college experience.

With the many choices, processes, and requirements before students, they may have limited attention to devote to any one task, like managing their day-to-day schedule as well as their own finances. The demands of these many details can create a challenge for students by limiting the attention that they are able to give to their academic work. For students from college-educated families, parents often guide their children in managing the college transition. In contrast, first-generation college-goers, whose parents are unfamiliar with the postsecondary context, may not benefit from similar support, not because their parents lack the desire to help but because they lack the experience through which they would understand how to help. Therefore, from a policy standpoint, we are especially interested to understand and help mitigate the challenges faced by these and other groups that struggle in getting to and through college.

Behavioral Barriers to Postsecondary Success

A major challenge arises in the fact that with the transition to postsecondary education, students are confronted with newfound freedom to make decisions and manage their day-to-day experiences in a context characterized by relative lack of structure and an overwhelming array of choices and responsibilities compared to the typical day-to-day experience in high school. To manage the complexity that they face, students may take shortcuts in decision making. For example, they may select courses primarily based on schedule rather than academic appropriateness.

Students may also place too much faith in the strength of their intentions to complete a challenging task in the future while failing to recognize sufficiently the factors that will hinder the eventual completion of that task. Similarly, students may be too present-focused , meaning that they overvalue present pleasures and, therefore, are particularly likely to procrastinate on challenging or complex tasks. In the often-bureaucratic arena of colleges, “hassle factors” such as gathering information about how to complete tasks, staying on top of deadlines, and completing tasks in the prescribed order can present substantial challenges. These barriers can be particularly acute for students from lower-income backgrounds, given that they often face greater financial stressors and carry a greater number of day-to-day responsibilities, such as working to cover expenses, than their peers from higher-income homes.

Another potential barrier to students’ academic success and continuation in college relates to issues of social belonging in the college setting and overemphasis on aspects of their own identity that are incongruent with college success. For example, students who view themselves as academically and social competent and able to set and achieve goals are more likely to persevere in the face of challenging situations and are more likely to seek help when needed. Given this, it may be helpful to “prime” aspects of students’ identity that align with their self-perceptions of resilience and academic success.

Nudges to Overcome Behavioral and Other Challenges

“Nudges,” or simple reminders and well-framed encouragements, have been effective in a variety of settings for improving follow-through with desirable actions. For example, using text message reminders via cell phones have contributed to increased savings behavior, sunscreen use, and voting. Similarly, in educational contexts, providing students with nudges can help reduce inertia and combat students’ tendency to procrastinate; lead to improvements in outcomes such as parental involvement and student academic performance; and even encourage students to take up academic and/or mental health support resources on campus at a particular point in the academic year.

My own work has revealed that text-based nudging can support college-intending high school graduates in successfully navigating the transition to postsecondary education. In addition, we find that providing timely text-based reminders about reapplying for federal financial aid can improve freshman to sophomore college persistence considerably, particularly among community college students.

These simple nudges can provide reminders that are well-timed to correspond to the windows of opportunity during which students would optimally focus on particular tasks. In fact, nudges that are well timed may actually serve to capitalize on students’ relative impulsivity, encouraging them to make progress with a particular task in the moment rather than putting it off to an unspecified future time.

However, some educational tasks are complex and require many intermediate steps. Students may need to complete the FAFSA across multiple sittings; they may need to revisit their academic course plan each semester to update and revisit choices. Even for these complex tasks, nudges and timely reminders that are spaced to encourage completion of intermediate steps in the process may improve student success by encouraging suitable progress, helping students to manage their attention to tasks at appropriate intervals, and by supporting students in realizing success with key intermediate success.

As noted above, we worry in particular about the differential level of college-related encouragement and support that students receive from their families according to the college experience of family members themselves. If a goal for college campuses is to offer appropriate supports particularly for first-generation students, low-income students, or other students at risk for not completing their postsecondary education, such small steps may make a big difference in improving the postsecondary success of these important student populations.

For more detailed information on the concept of summer melt, Page wrote a book on the topic that was published last October, Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College. She explores the complex factors that contribute to the 10-40 percent of high school students who plan on attending college and ultimately fail to do so in the fall. This book is now widely used by colleges around the country to guide their efforts as they help first-generation college students find their way from acceptance to successful arrival at college.

For additional information, please see the following:

  • Lavecchia, A. M., Liu, H. & Oreopoulos, P. (2014). Behavioral economics of education: Progress and possibilities. NBER Working Paper No. 20609.
  • Ross, R., White, S., Wright, J., & Knapp, L. (2013). Using behavioral economics for postsecondary success. Idea42.
  • Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.