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Supporting Low-Income Students: Strategies for Retention and Success

AUDIO | Supporting Low-Income Students: Strategies for Retention and Success
The opportunity exists for administrators to drive retention and success among low-income, non-traditional students with relatively low-cost intervention strategies.

The following is the conclusion of a two-part interview with Ben Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. Castleman has done a great deal of research on the summer melt phenomenon, and recently published research exploring a few strategies higher education institutions could put in place to retain their low-income and non-traditional students. In the first part, Castleman outlined a number of the challenges facing low-income, non-traditional students. In this conclusion, he discusses the most effective strategies to help students overcome these barriers.

3. What are the most effective strategies you’ve come across for institutions to put in place to maintain their low-income, non-traditional students?

Providing students with fairly straightforward strategies that encourage them to recognize that academic ability and performance can grow and be developed with practice and effort can have a very substantial effect on whether students are successful in college.

They have done interventions where, during the summer when students are transitioning into college, they have students read fairly strong prompts and then participate in a series of questions that promote this idea of a growth mindset; that the more you work at being academically successful, the better you get and that the experience of participating in this growth mindset activity can lead to substantial increase in academic performance. Greg Walton [of Stanford University] has done a lot of work showing that if you promote a sense of social belonging among college freshmen, [it] normalizes the challenge students face in the transition to college and reassures them it does get better over time. [This can] promote resilience against issues they face with transitional challenges and it can help them academically, not just over the first few months, but over time.

4. What types of intervention systems have you been exploring?

We have focused on text messaging as a delivery channel for providing students with timely information about the task they have to complete. The reason we’ve used text messaging is that we know the vast majority of students text on a daily basis, and it’s very easy to configure text messages to provide students with timely, consolidated bursts of information about the path they have to complete.

Those messages can be highly personalized to the student and enable them to complete tasks in the moment their attention is diverted elsewhere. We can include things like web links that bring students directly to an orientation registration page or a site where they can sign up for tutoring help. We can also make it really easy for students to get connected for financial aid support, inviting them to reply back to a text message and say they need help.

There’s a lot of power in that. It doesn’t require a student to go into a financial advising office or pick up the phone and call someone with whom they may not have a relationship. Both of those are fairly large relational investments for students who are often the first in their family to go to school, but replying to text messages takes a couple of seconds.

We consistently find that students are quite wiling to engage through text messaging as a medium. We’ve used this to help students get informed about a summer class they have to complete to successfully enroll. We’ve also used this work to help students renew their financial aid and continue in college.

There’s really great potential to extend the personalized text messaging strategy and combine [it] with these mindset and social belonging interjections at other stages in student learning trajectories. Let’s say students are struggling with their midterms; we could use text messaging to encourage students to sign up for tutoring or meet with an academic advisor. We could even pair that with a mindset-type intervention to help them recognize that it’s normal for students to struggle with midterms but that, with effort, they can get back on track.

Going forward, I’m really interested in that intersection of informational intervention that we can do for text messaging combined with psychological interventions to really promote positive outcomes for students.

5. In your research, you identified that the cost-per-student of implementing the low-touch strategy — text messaging — came to about $5. When you look at the effectiveness of that strategy, what are the biggest roadblocks to actually implementing it on a wide basis?

A lot of colleges have now developed early alert systems where they work with a company or they develop an in-house product that looks at all of the data they have for students and identifies students who might be struggling or might be at risk of struggling. For all of these types of interventions, we need an effective way to communicate with students. We need information about the students so that we can make our outreach personalized and we need people who can help make the messaging or the outreach content as effective and as student-tailored as possible.

The types of communications we use are only limited by our creativity and by our hard thinking about the ways students communicate with each other. A challenge is that a lot of higher education institutions continue to rely on email or some kind of proprietary online distribution system, like a college web portal, when that’s not how students are engaging with each other on a regular basis. I’m a strong believer in text messaging or Instagram or SnapChat or Twitter. We need to be at the frontier of how students are communicating with each other for the intervention to be effective. They are most effective when we can keep the outreach personalized to the student and their experience. From that work, we can make the information specific to that college that students are planning to attend.

Finally it’s important to recognize not all messages are treated equal and that the details really matter. Getting the content right in a way that it feels authentic to the student — it feels true to their experience, it feels like it’s coming from a voice that’s caring and personalized and knowledgeable — is going to impact how responsive the student is, how proactively they engage.

If what we then do is take the content we would have put in an email and just dump it into a text message, it’s probably not going to be as effective as if we think really hard about how we craft the messaging to be as true and authentic to the student as possible. In order to do that, we should work with students themselves, we should run our messages by students, we should enlist all kinds of different experts.

6. Do you have anything to add about the changing landscape of interventions to support retention among low-income, non-traditional students?

Clearly there’s growing interest in higher education and behavioral insights, social, psychological strategies to improve student engagement and responsiveness — and it’s gained a lot of momentum. In addition to looking at promising models from the policy and education realm, clearly the corporate strategy has been using these strategies for decades to get us to buy stuff. Companies like Amazon make live chat available [because they know] there’s a lot of things shoppers need to choose from. If live chat is available, that may really help us make the decision and resolve complex choices we’re facing.

In addition to looking within the education policy realm, we should be consulting our colleagues in marketing, in advertising, in consumer psychology, who can similarly provide very useful guidance on how to design outreach, design messaging and design strategies in a way that are really going to maximize the chance that students can engage and respond to us.

This interview has been edited for length.

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