Could Texts From College Help You Graduate?

11.15.18
Image courtesy of Persistence Plus
11.15.18

To meet their goals or graduate on time, college students traditionally check in with advisors or academic counselors. But times are changing, and some students in California are getting academic “nudges” as text messages sent out via artificial intelligence.

Getting life advice from an algorithm isn’t that weird when you consider how much we already talk to our phones — from Siri to bot therapists. Many colleges see text-message nudges as promising ways to support students in achieving their goals and staying in school.

This practice is based on behavioral science. Studies suggest that nudging may help keep young people who are “at risk” (for example, current or former foster youth) in school, as well as help them with other life skills.

We wanted to know more about how nudging is being used to support college students, so YR Media’s Noel Anaya sat down with Cecilia Le, managing director at Persistence Plus, an education platform that helps schools send out nudges.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Noel Anaya: Are these nudges done by real people? 

Cecilia Le: So it’s both automated and human. People are designing them. We have a team of behavioral scientists who have designed thousands of nudging interactions that help students meet the challenges of college. Then our intelligence software system delivers these [as text messages] to students right at the time that they’ll be most helpful. We’re able to support tens of thousands of students across California, in a way that is personalized and differentiated and can meet their individual challenges

NA: Can you give me some examples?

CL:  Let’s say that a student says that their goal was to study for their biology test. So we might ask, “When and where are you going to do that?”

And if they say, “at the library on Tuesday after class,” they would actually get a follow up [text] on Tuesday like, “Your plan was to study at the library. How’s it going?”

And from there let’s say the students said they didn’t get a chance to do it. They might get other nudges to help them break [that] down. “Well what were the obstacles? And how could you do things differently to get to your goal?”

NA:  As a former foster youth, I could see certain resources, like going to see an academic counselor, as being overwhelming for some students. Are there ways to handle situations where a kid is hesitant?

CL: We see that a lot. Students may feel stigma around certain challenges. They may need a nudge to connect with [the] support that’s available on campus.

We know so many college students are struggling to meet basic needs, like food, housing, or transportation. It may not be obvious on the surface, but many other students on campus are also facing this challenge. Students may at first feel a little more comfortable engaging with this type of support over a text-messaging channel.

NA: Is there any evidence that nudges are effective?

C: We took part in a randomized controlled trial, nudging students at three different community colleges. Students who were getting the nudges returned at a rate 10 percentage points higher than students who were randomly chosen not to receive these nudges.

N: Have you ever come across situations where the nudge isn’t working and a young person asks you to “stop that”?

CL: I think that when we first started out, students were coming every day and they were like “Hey, that’s way too much,” and so now [the texts are] a couple of times a week.

NA: Are there ethical concerns when it comes to nudging?

CL: The idea behind nudging is that it is never coercive. The nudge should be helping the person to accomplish a goal that they already have.

NA: Is there a favorite automated nudge that a lot of students like?

CL: We ask students to write themselves a motivational message at the beginning of the school year. This message comes in their own words, and it could be anything from “Don’t forget that you’re doing this for your kids” to ”You’ve come so far, you can’t give up now.” Students actually get this motivational message played back to them, and it usually means a lot to them to see their own words.

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