Study: A Nudge Goes a Long Way in Delivering Basic Needs Support

A new report from The Hope Center titled, “Supporting the Whole Community College Student: The Impact of Nudging for Basic Needs Security,” points out that sending Amarillo College students simple emails more than doubled the use of the college’s basic needs center and increased students' odds of completing developmental education by about 20%.

In 2016, Amarillo’s president, Dr. Russell D. Lowery-Hart, invited The Hope Center to examine the college’s Advocacy & Resource Center (ARC). The Hope Center wrote a case study, published in 2019, funded by the Trellis Foundation. ARC was then serving about 13% of Amarillo College students, which was less than the estimated two-thirds who dealt with basic needs insecurities, such as housing and food. The center also mostly serviced female students. Dr. Sara Goldrick-RabDr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

“The question was, what could we do to get more students to the ARC and could it help get more men there?" said Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, president and founder of The Hope Center, which is headquartered at Temple University. "The other question, is the ARC actually helping students academically?”  

The objective, she said, was to increase ARC use, particularly among high-risk students, by using low-cost technology and estimate the academic impact. The subjects were 1,000 students who were enrolled in developmental education coursework—often a barrier to retention and community college completion—and identified as low-income.

The ARC offers access to emergency aid, public benefits programs, transportation, childcare assistance, coaching, career guidance, textbook lending and counseling. There is also a food pantry and clothing closet.

“We have shown that students that go to our Advocacy & Resource Center and seek out social services do have higher retention and completion rates,” said Cara Crowley, vice president of strategic initiatives at Amarillo College, which is located in Texas.

Targeted personalized emails about ARC were sent monthly to selected students. For the purpose of this study, emails were personalized with the recipient’s first name and included references to the time of year. It detailed the available supports and services as well as words of encouragement. The signature included the name of a staff member.

This research commenced in fall 2018. Emails were sent to both the school and personal email addresses of the 1,000 students. About 49% opened the first email and 4% clicked on the links included. About 25% opened subsequent emails and about 2% clicked on the links.

Prior to this study, ARC was using different strategies to connect with students, including generalized email blasts, flyers and classroom presentations.

“There is some evidence that students need to feel more invited,” said Goldrick-Rab. “Also, if you tell students during a time when they don’t really need help, they don’t hear you. The key is repetition. That’s how we arrived at the strategy of one email a month that was sent to a targeted group of students.”

The impact was decisive with access to ARC increasing from 22% to 56% among the test group. Also, the rates of passage of developmental education coursework increased by 20%. While the nudging emails impacted female students at a higher rate than male students, there was an increase among male students.  Cara CrowleyCara Crowley

Nudged students in the academic year of 2018–19 passed their developmental education courses at a rate of 71% as compared to 59% for students who did not receive the nudging emails.

Today, Amarillo no longer utilizes developmental education curriculum. It has switched to the co-requisite model, but the basic principles of this study have been carried forward.

“We have transitioned to text messaging; our enrollment management division is nudging them to access services in ARC,” said Crowley. “We send out a variety of messages that are targeted to students that talk about our food pantry, our social services, our scholarships, our emergency aid.”

Crowley said the pandemic has trained a spotlight on the need. This fall, the college's academic headcount (non-dual credit) is 7,169. Seven weeks into the fall term, 992 students made 2,253 visits to the ARC. At present, the average age of Amarillo students is 25 and 66% are female. Additionally, 55% are first-generation college students and 60% identify as minority, predominantly Latinx.

“I really hope that others will look at the importance of doing targeted outreach to students,” Crowley said. “That means getting to the heart of their data and understanding who their students are, developing a system to identify those students and then outreach and provide services to those students.”

The next step for The Hope Center is to see if these findings can be replicated in other settings. A similar study is being done at Dallas College, Compton College and several other community colleges.

“The first step is to see if we can similarly get these big improvements in other places,” Goldrick-Rab said. “The second part is getting an estimate of what happens when we’re looking at the effect of connecting them to the public benefits.”

The report noted in its conclusion that the many entities working to improve outcomes for underprepared students should integrate basic needs supports into their work and evaluate the outcomes. In the past year, The Hope Center has taken on more than 100 colleges across the country as partners and is providing those schools with training and coaching to help disseminate this kind of information to all corners of the institutions.


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