Students at four U.S. community colleges are sticking with sometimes-demanding STEM courses with a little encouragement from personalized text messages that encourage them to complete classes.

The joint initiative from Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Persistence Plus sends students personalized text messages that “nudge” students to focus on college completion and STEM success.

This past summer, a randomized trial with close to 2,000 students showed that the STEM students who received the nudges returned for the 2017 fall semester at a rate 10 percentage points higher than a control group of students who did not receive nudges.

(Next page: How do the personalized text messages help students succeed?)

Text message nudges include asking students about their biggest academic concerns, and may offer advice from other students or include links to student groups that align with individual students’ interests.

The “nudges” lead to a 2- to 9-percentage point uptick in persistence rates and a 12 percentage point greater persistence for first-generation college students. The nudges also showed an 11 percentage point increase in online adults who successfully complete courses, as well as higher grades in introductory math classes over eight straight terms.

Those students are five times more likely to seek tutoring, and 90 percent of students who participated in the pilot recommended all new students receive mobile nudges.

According to data from The Brookings Institution, community colleges produce more than one half of all STEM degrees. The Nudging to STEM Success Initiative targets the problem of degree completion–more than two-thirds of STEM associate’s degree candidates fail to complete their STEM studies. Half of those students switch to a non-STEM major, and the other half leave school without earning a degree or certification.

The initiative is helping four community colleges implement nudges to increase STEM success and degrees for more than 10,000 students:
• Lakeland Community College, Kirtland, Ohio
• Lorain County Community College, Elyria, Ohio
• Stark State College, North Canton, Ohio
• John Tyler Community College, Chester, Va.

The initiative aims to build student success rates broadly, in particular in STEM fields that offer strong opportunities for economic advancement. STEM workers command higher wages, earning 29 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.

Maria Flynn, president and chief executive officer of JFF, said she’s encouraged by the first group of results and anticipates bringing the project to scale.

“The initial results are very encouraging,” Flynn said. “[Through personalized] text messages, students are more empowered to complete their degrees, colleges experience higher success rates, and STEM employers ultimately benefit with a more skilled workforce.”

The U.S. faces a projected shortage of skilled STEM workers. Employment in STEM occupations grew much faster than non-STEM occupations over the last decade (24.4 percent versus 4 percent, respectively), and STEM occupations are expected to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014-2024, compared to 6.4 percent for non-STEM occupations.

Looking at students’ behavior and personalizing an approach to support students’ unique STEM journeys appears to be helping, according to Persistence Plus President Jill Frankfort.

“By leveraging behavioral science in a personalized fashion, we’ve been able to help students navigate roadblocks such as issues with registration and financial aid, competing life obligations, and uncertainty about whether college or a STEM degree is for them, and ultimately ensure that STEM students stay on a pathway to greater economic success,” she said.

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Laura Ascione

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