Five Things You Should Know if You Care About Improving Higher Education

Apr 2, 2015 in Blog

Over the past two years, the ideas42 team has run more than 15 higher education projects at colleges and universities around the country. Our goal is to use behavioral science insights to design low cost interventions that improve student outcomes – both academic and financial. In the process we’ve taken a crash course in the field of higher education and learned a tremendous amount, from broad policy issues to small operational details.

We recently sat down as a group to discuss what we’ve learned, in particular those things we didn’t necessarily expect to discover about American higher education.

While these insights may be familiar to practitioners and other experts, we hope some are useful for those working to improve outcomes in higher education.

1.     College is filled with unnecessarily complex processes

The digitization of campuses means most of the processes college students navigate—from course registration to taking out loans—are executed online. When students make poor decisions it’s often due to technological features that complicate tasks, such as long drop-down menus, complex scheduling tools, or hidden buttons.

Streamlining and simplifying the presentation of choices is, in theory, a straightforward way to help students avoid decision-making errors. But when these changes require software updates – which they typically do – they often languish for months or years in an institution’s upgrade queue. This is true even for simple changes like adding a “help” button to a registration page. The need to edit software code is a huge bottleneck, and this is a big area of opportunity to improve persistence by lowering barriers unintentionally created by system complexity.

With this in mind some of our projects involve the design of “workarounds” that use analog communications to help students navigate the complex digital world. Our goal is not only to improve decision-making, but also to produce compelling evidence for the need to make technological changes to simplify processes as a matter of urgency.

2.     Communication between the administration and students matters

One of the first things students are given when they enroll in college is an email address. Their inbox then becomes the destination for important messages from the college administration. But with hundreds of emails of varying levels of importance sent each semester at many schools, how many have their intended impact? How many actually get opened? And how many students even use their campus email?

For example, in preparation during spring semester for the following fall, students receive separate emails from multiple departments, each packed with critical information, all arriving amid the daily flood of other email. To students, this process seems unnecessarily complex and hard to follow. From the perspective of each department, however, each message is an important one that students need to read and act on.

If they want their messages to be heard, colleges should find ways to reduce the email deluge. This could be done by integrating different pieces of information into the same message, or thinking about other ways to communicate with students. Finding more impactful channels through which to communicate with students isn’t just about making students’ lives easier – it could go a long way in improving outcomes too.

3.     Administrators communicate most effectively when they remember what it’s like to be a student

College offices, like Financial Aid or the Registrar, have many things to communicate that are important to both the students and the school. In spite of this alignment of interests, the messages often fail to get through and administrators are left struggling to understand why.

One of the main causes of this disconnect between administrative staff and students is the curse of knowledge – something that we can all fall prey to. The resulting use of complex language and university jargon can lead to a gap in understanding that has serious consequences for student success.

Many of our projects try to improve school-to-student communication. With all the messages flooding student inboxes, it’s important that e-mail wording is concise and accessible; required actions are structured into specific steps; and the tone is conversational. Designing e-mails according to these guidelines has resulted in positive behavior changes at nearly every institution we’re working with, and generated insights that all schools can use to improve student outcomes.

4.     Student aid borrowers behave mysteriously

Given the highly regimented nature of academic calendars, which determine when students who have student loans leave school and enter repayment, we expected to see season-based fluctuations in the repayment of student loans. But the trends we saw were not as clear-cut and, for now, something of a mystery. Why do twice as many borrowers apply for income-based repayment plans in February than in any other month? Why are there one-third as many forbearance applications in August as in November? Why do deferment applications double in December-January?

We haven’t yet gotten to the bottom of these patterns. Nor to our knowledge has anyone else, makingqualitative investigations of borrower behavior that much more important to the field.

5.     “Traditional” and “nontraditional” student behavior differs

We knew community colleges would include more “nontraditional” students who may be older, have families, and face different circumstances than “traditional” students straight from high school. What we weren’t anticipating was the extent to which behaviors differ between these two groups.

For example, nontraditional students seem to be better at managing time. Our hypothesis is that juggling multiple obligations leaves students with less slack in their weekly schedules, which makes good time management practices, like keeping a calendar and leaving home early to be on time for class, necessities for staying on track. On the other hand, older students seem to be affected far more by “nudges” that make email communications easier to understand and act upon.

More research will help clarify the differences between these students, and what the implications are for improving the outcomes of both groups.

To sum up…

While many challenges exist in postsecondary education, we have been hugely inspired by the skill and passionate commitment of the researchers and practitioners we met and collaborated with. These professionals are determined to solve the problems we all see and to help more students across the country move closer to reaching their full potential. We’re proud to be working alongside them.