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Nudges Increase STEM Persistence at Community Colleges

“Wise interventions” delivered by text message can keep STEM students enrolled.

Tulane Public Relations/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Tulane Public Relations/Wikimedia Commons

Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve written about several researchers who use social psychology and "nudging" to improve college students’ academic, social, and emotional success. This month, I’m thrilled to share with you an intervention published recently in AERA Open by another of these researchers: me! (ooh-ooh-ooh!)

Since early 2017, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with Jobs for the Future on the Nudging to STEM Success project, alongside my colleagues at Persistence Plus. Together, we sought to increase completion rates in middle-skills STEM programs at community colleges, where nationally only 13 percent of STEM students graduate within 3 years, and approximately 40 percent fail to earn any type of postsecondary credential. With my fellow Behavioral Researcher, Dr. Betsy Sparrow, we tested a summertime nudge intervention that increased retention by 10 percentage points compared to a randomized control group. How did we do it? With a mix of science, technology, and a little “wisdom.”

Nudging “Wisely”

College students matriculate knowing more about STEM than just the periodic table or the Pythagorean theorem: They also come to us with biases about who studies STEM and the kind of person who enjoys STEM-related careers. One reason some STEM students leave the pipeline—or college altogether—is that they come to see themselves as someone who doesn’t belong in STEM. So we tackled these identity threats using “wise interventions,” which are evidence-based approaches to creating attitudinal and behavioral changes that last well beyond the end of an intervention.

Persistence Plus
Sample interaction between student and Persistence Plus.
Source: Persistence Plus

In contrast to traditional programs to combat “summer melt,” which generally focus on logistical challenges like renewing the FAFSA, we used nudging to also help students through psychosocial challenges (see image):

  • Increasing their sense that they belong in college.
  • Reaffirming their personal values.
  • Self-reflecting on their reasons for attending college.

Moreover, we sent unregistered students guidance on issues related to financial aid, registration, and career planning. Students who responded to any of our nudges received further personalized advice and resources to help them remedy their situation and return to college in the fall.

Nudging Students to STEM Success

Across seven weeks of the summer, we nudged over 1,300 students at three U.S. community colleges through text messages, with about 1 in 5 responding at least once. Students could opt out of receiving messages at any time, but only 5 percent did so before receiving any treatment. Compared to the randomly selected 1,300-plus students who received usual summer support from their college, nudges increased overall fall re-enrollment from 62 percent to 69 percent.

Persistence Plus
Nudges increased retention for STEM & summer enrolled students.
Source: Persistence Plus

We next examined whether our nudges worked better for some students than others. STEM students saw the largest benefit, with an increase from 59 percent re-enrollment in the control group to 69 percent in the nudged group. Moreover, nearly 82 percent of students enrolled in summer courses returned in the fall when nudged, compared to 71 percent of control students who were enrolled over the summer. Nudged students who were not enrolled over the summer showed a smaller benefit—3 percentage points—but the effect wasn’t statistically significant.

Nudging that Matters

What are some of the main lessons we can draw from the results of this study?

  1. “Fit” matters. The impact of our nudges on STEM students' re-enrollment—10 percentage points—reinforce what we know about the psychosocial challenges that force many students from the STEM pipeline. In addition, these wise interventions had an impact at three community colleges already engaged in initiatives to redesign STEM (e.g., guided pathways), showing that these nudges work alongside and in support of other reforms.

  2. Context matters. In contrast to recent null results produced by efforts to scale nudging nationally, our study illustrates the importance of contextualizing nudges to students’ circumstances. With each college’s guidance, our nudges were tailored to each institution. Moreover, we targeted our wise interventions to different students based upon the challenges they reported over the summer and how they responded to various nudges.

  3. Summer matters. Not only were students enrolled in summer courses far more likely to return in the first place (71 percent vs. 54 percent), but they were more influenced by our nudges than students taking the summer off from college. While many colleges already know the value of getting students to enroll in summer courses in terms of retention, summer may be a particularly apt time to stage other student support interventions. Meanwhile, special efforts may be necessary to better nudge students who are away from campus to return for the fall.

Ultimately, the health of our community colleges and regional economies depends on our ability to graduate more students from STEM programs and launch them toward a bachelor’s degree or employment in a middle-skills STEM career. Nudging offers us one more evidence-based tool for supporting our students to success.


National Science Foundation (2018). Undergraduate education, enrollment, and degrees in the United States. Available for download here.

O’Hara, R. E., & Sparrow, B. (2019). A summer nudge campaign to motivate community college STEM students to reenroll. AERA Open, 5(3), 1-10. Available for download here.

Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 73-82. Available for download here.