‘Nudge’ students toward better academic choices

Expert Insight

‘Nudge’ students toward better academic choices

Strategic changes to institutional design can improve student outcomes

What will it take to make real progress on student retention and graduation rates? One obvious, though radical, solution to the problem of student attrition is to remove the complexities associated with traditional institutions, creating what some have called the “No Frills” university.

In this environment, students would have just a few curricular options to choose from; a strict, blocked timeline in which to complete those options; personal success coaches to monitor their progress—and all of this would be provided at little to no cost.

The allure of the 'no frills' university as a completion panacea, but at what cost?

The “No Frills” university, however, would sacrifice the flexibility and curricular breadth afforded today’s students, the rigor their peers and employers respect, the work ethic and responsibility developed over years of independent maturation, and the co- and extra-curricular opportunities provided by student organizations.

Fortunately, academic leaders can achieve significant gains in student success without radical change to their institution by examining how students make choices and solve problems.

Are your faculty engaged in helping nudge students toward better choices?

A moderate alternative

In their 2009 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein popularized the concept of “choice architecture,” which refers to the design of a context in which one makes a particular decision. The authors argue that policymakers might “nudge” citizens through subtle cues to encourage better decisions about health, finances, and other critical public concerns. Through analogy, this concept sheds light on many missed opportunities in higher education:

Minor changes in policy and framing affect all aspects of life but too often, students are 'nudged' in the wrong direction

Though often unintentionally, colleges and universities commonly encourage behaviors known to harm a student’s likelihood to persist, while failing to take advantage of ideas or policies that might steer more students to graduation with only a minor alteration to their choice architecture.

For example, by shifting to multi-term course registration (encouraging students to commit to an entire year’s worth of enrollment) or encouraging more students to take at least 15 credit hours per term (changing the perception that 12 credits per term keeps them “on track” for timely graduation), some institutions are seeing noticeable improvements in retention.

Preserving choice and ensuring sustainability

Revisiting institutional design through the lens of choice architecture provides two important advantages:

  • It allows institutions to affect student outcomes while preserving a wide array of options. The “nudge” concept avoids the tension between free choice and paternalistic control within each institution’s approach to improving completion rates. Students are encouraged, but not required, to make decisions conducive to on-time graduation.
  • It does not rely on high variable costs. Unlike investments in advising or reductions in class size, changes to choice architecture can provide a high return without exponential financial investment.

Moderate but impactful changes to drop and withdrawal policies, registration periods, student support web portals, and major pathways can eliminate many well-known obstacles to graduation.

More ways to guide student choice

For more detail on how progressive institutions are redesigning their policies and support structures to influence students’ choices, check out our study Guiding Student Choice to Promote Persistence. Download the study

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