The art of the text nudge

Using tech-based support to optimize student engagement

Colleges and universities are continually looking for new and different ways to help prospective students enroll, and help enrolled students persist and graduate. For the past several years, the idea of “nudging” has become an area of intense interest. Nudging is, essentially, the tech-based equivalent of a Post-It note — a short, targeted text sent directly to a student.

A nudge can be a reminder for a student to complete and submit their FAFSA. It can be a message of support and information on counseling when finals are approaching. It can be a link to a resource, a check-in to see how the semester is going or a prompt to schedule an appointment. 

Lately, with studies coming out showing mixed results, the concept of nudging has become a heated debate in higher ed circles. Are they effective? Can they be scaled? Do they really help move the needle for enrollment? Persistence? Completion? 

We believe nudging, text conversations and other multichannel communications work because they’re fully grounded by coaching methodology. According to Micah Wheeler, an InsideTrack Success Coach, “It’s a particularly good way to get people on board in the initial phases of the coaching relationship — to get the conversation started.” Our Coaches take what works best about nudging — convenience, pxfersonalized support, meeting students where they’re at — and use that as the basis for more in-depth support. Without the strategic, coordinated and relationship-based communication program behind it, it’s just another text. For us, the student/coach relationship is key. 

One part of the puzzle

Tech-based programs like nudging are designed to enhance — not replace — existing support strategies. So in order for nudging to be effective, it needs to be part of a comprehensive student support program. 

It’s been shown that students prefer to use technology to complete administrative tasks, like scheduling an appointment, submitting an application and completing paperwork. Tech-based programs, including texts, also allow students to ask what they consider “silly” questions without the fear of looking stupid. It’s an easy way for them to get answers to inquiries even if they don’t know the right office or staff person to ask. 

The personal connection

Initial results show that nudging is far more likely to be effective when the text is coming from a person or institution the student has a positive relationship with. According to a September 2019 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “recent studies suggest that nudges are more effective when students feel connected to the group sending them.” 

For nearly 20 years, InsideTrack Coaches have been making one-on-one personal connections with students at every phase of their journey. These relationships are what set us apart.  And whether it’s a quick nudge or a more in-depth conversation, nowhere is that more apparent than with text-based support. According to InsideTrack Retention Coach Jen Adams, while texts are traditionally used for snippets of informal conversation, they can also be an amazing way to communicate with busy, on-the-go college students. “This is especially true with online students,” she says, “where the campus is virtual and keeping students connected is critical.” 

Coaches like Adams are skilled at explaining higher ed processes and asking open-ended questions — digging deeper to go below the surface and learn about the real challenges students are facing. 

Timing is everything

With our customizable platform, nudges and reminders can be doled out to students at specific times, when it makes the most sense. So instead of bombarding students with too much information all at once — like at the beginning of the semester, for example — time-specific nudges can be customized and sent as reminders for financial aid, enrollment and upcoming exams.

Adding other tech-based support to the mix — such as digital resources and contact links to key student support staff — gives students access to relevant information 24/7. With more and more students dealing with work and family commitments, in addition to their education, having the ability to access information outside of traditional office hours is a must. 

Penn State University World Campus partnered with InsideTrack to make tailored support available to more students at the critical start of their education journey. By using multichannel communication designed to help create new pathways for students to access critical resources,  Penn State saw a 28 percent increase in yield for coached students and a 3.6 percentage point increase in first-year retention over the historical average — all while serving four times more students at a similar cost. When you have a student population that’s always on, you need a support strategy that can keep up.

What’s next for student support texting?

As more research becomes available, the key takeaways seem to be that in order for nudges to be effective, they need to have relevant, time-based content and targeted, actionable messaging. They need to come from a credible source that the student trusts. And they need to be part of a coordinated, relationship-based communication program. Employing the “nuances of nudging” helps our coaches and partners text for success and achieve better student outcomes.

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