Nudging Students to Succeed: A New Approach to Retention and Graduation

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Antonio Henley, Cathy Jones & Cecilia Le

When JCSU was selected by the White House Initiative for HBCUs to apply the Blue Ocean Strategy, a theory that suggests creating new markets is better than competing in existing ones, we identified four dimensions that drive retention and graduation: 1) possessing a vision that graduating with a JCSU degree outweighs the cost of earning it, 2) receiving timely and effective academic support for each level of coursework, 3) building up the emotional strength to put in the hard work to persist and graduate, and 4) securing the financial means to complete a degree.

But we know that despite the high support that may be offered, students are often afraid to ask for help regardless—especially if they already lack confidence in their academic skills. These students struggle to manage their time and responsibilities and setbacks can lead them to question whether their sacrifices are worth it, or if they belong in college at all. To increase retention and graduation, we needed more than exceptional student services—we needed to unlock student demand to make use of them.

Our goal of increasing students’ use of our support services led us to partner in fall 2015 with Persistence Plus, an organization that uses behavioral science, data analytics, and mobile technology to help students develop academic mindsets and habits help them persist toward college completion. Persistence Plus sends personalized behavioral nudges to our first-year students over text message or mobile app. The messages, based on behavioral research, help students follow through on goals, seek help when they need it, reframe setbacks, and draw on their motivations to sustain a long-term vision.

Below are a few specific examples of how this new strategy has proven effective:

Helping students create specific plans to meet their goals. Behavioral research shows that committing to a specific time and place will increase the likelihood that someone will complete an intended task such as getting a flu shot or voting in an election. Before key exams and deadlines, students receive nudges that ask them to form specific plans for when they will study, register for courses, or complete their financial aid applications. A typical student response might be “on Thursday after class in the student union.”

Encouraging students to expect to seek help. The nudges don’t just tell students that help is available—they frame seeking help as a common and expected part of the college experience. Research has demonstrated that people will often behave based on information about how others behave. For example, hotel guests who were told that the majority of guests reuse their towels were significantly more likely to reuse their own towels. The Persistence Plus nudges tell students that many other students have visited our tutoring center or filed for financial aid. 

Reframing adversity as a shared experience. Other nudges are focused on helping students see that other students like them have faced and overcome similar struggles. Persistence Plus shares “LifeBits,” real vignettes from students of similar backgrounds who overcame specific college challenges, based on research evidence that reframing adversity as common and transient leads to improved academic and health outcomes, especially for African-American students.

Leveraging students’ own motivations. Another behavioral strategy asks students to articulate their own motivations for earning a college degree from JCSU, which are played back to them during tough or stressful times. Among the student responses are:

  • “It’s important for me to earn my degree at JCSU because my dream is to become an accountant and I’m ready to do everything that it takes to fulfill that dream.”
  • “Because it would help to get into my field of work, to follow my dreams, and also take care of my nieces”
  • “I’ve always wanted to attend an HBCU plus I’m a first-generation college student. I feel JCSU is the right place for me to be.”

As we make transformative changes to increase student success, personalized behavioral support is just one piece. But we are optimistic that it can help more students persist. At other institutions using Persistence Plus, students receiving the nudges have had greater course success and term-to-term persistence than students who do not. After just one semester, JCSU students are reporting that they find the nudges helpful without being intrusive. One student commended the nudges for “reaching out to the students and providing useful tips,” adding that it’s a “great way to show the students that JCSU cares.”

Dr. Antonio Henley is University College Dean and Dr. Cathy Jones is Associate Dean, First-Year Experience at Johnson C. Smith University. Cecilia Le is Director of Partnerships at Persistence Plus.

A Student’s Perspective: The Importance of HBCUs to Black Greek Organizations


Faith Dawson

My first experience with black Greek organizations dates back to Spring 2012, my senior year of high school. I was visiting Howard University for their Accepted Students’ Day and while touring the campus I saw a huge crowd gathered on “The Yard.” I went to see what all the hype was about and saw a group of young men all lined up wearing blue masks. I later found out that I was at a probate witnessing these young men cross into Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. The excitement that surrounded me was contagious. For these young men standing in the line and the brothers of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. that surrounded them, this was a an important and celebratory moment. Fast forward almost 4 years later and I am now a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA). I was inducted in Fall 2013, but my entrance into Greek life started with that moment of excitement and community on The Yard.

Growing up, I had limited exposure to Greek life and didn’t really understand it until I went to college. Although I didn’t end up going to Howard University, that experience when I visited made a lasting impression on me and put the prospect of joining a sorority on my radar. It’s ironic how my interest in Greek life started in the same place my sorority was founded back in 1908. In fact, 5 of the 9 fraternities and sororities nicknamed the “Divine Nine” were founded at Howard University along with the National Pan Hellenic Council (NPHC), which was also founded there in 1930. Although the members of these organizations are now widespread and there are chapters at schools all over the country at both PWIs and MSIs alike, I think it’s safe to say that without HBCUs’ cultivation of black Greek life, the constituents under the NPHC would not be as relevant or have as much prestige as they have today worldwide.

Given this history, I would argue that members of a black Greek organization at any institution should advocate for HBCUs, especially if that organization was originally founded on an HBCU campus. As a member of AKA, I really appreciate my organization’s current program target titled, “Think HBCU.” Alpha Kappa Alpha launched this national campaign in 2014 to ensure that we give priority to recognizing HBCUs’ contributions to the sorority and to society. Through fundraising, education, engagement, and advocacy for HBCUs, the sorority plans to showcase HBCUs as a “critical venue for moving students to and through college.”

Typically, HBCU alumni are the main donors when it comes to giving back to HBCUs. But what if members of black Greek organizations made a concerted effort to support HBCUs even though they may not have been directly affiliated with them? I am willing to bet that Greeks who know their organization’s history recognize the value of HBCUs both historically and today. There are numerous ways to support HBCUs, not only financially but also by advocating for them on an individual level or through larger organizations, such as through Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Think HBCU. Such advocacy doesn’t always have to be national, either: members of the black Greek community can advocate for HBCUs in casual conversations with friends and family and keep others apprised of the various organizations that support them. All in all, as a proud member of a black Greek organization, I wouldn’t hesitate to support HBCUs and I think others should do the same.

Faith Dawson is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and the Social Media Specialist for the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She is an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Coming Full Circle: A Student’s Success Story Working with Sacramento State’s Full Circle Project


Marietess Masulit

The Full Circle Project (FCP) is a federally funded Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI) program at Sacramento State dedicated to increasing the graduation rates of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) students by providing them with academic support as well as opportunities to get involved on campus and develop leadership skills.

As a former FCP mentor and administrative assistant, I am a living example of the program’s success in its mission to serve AAPI students. In reflecting on my time with FCP, I have realized how much I have gained from the program. I love the community that FCP has created on Sacramento State’s campus. It is a support system for AAPI students that I feel had been lacking on campus during most of my time as an undergraduate.

Puukaninoeaualoha Tiwanak, another one of the students in the program’s first cohort, agrees: “At Sac State, the Full Circle Project is a holistic opportunity. It provides me with the means to succeed as a student, a leader and a cultural advocate, all the while helping me reach toward my dreams. When I walk into the FCP office, I am in a place where I can speak about any issue that’s on my mind, whether it’s about grades or even about my identity. I’m constantly grateful that I have a safe space that can help me in so many ways.”

FCP’s first cohort began on campus in falI 2012. At the time I was beginning my junior year as an undergraduate and serving as the teaching assistant for the Introduction to the Ethnic Studies course that was a part of FCP’s learning community courses. From then on I continued to stay connected with FCP by attending their events, participating as a mentor in the FCP mentor program, and establishing relationships with the program’s staff and faculty. In my last year at Sacramento State, the administrative assistant position with FCP became available and I was hired on to fill the position.

In my transition from an undergraduate student to a FCP staff member, one of my first tasks was setting up FCP’s first office ever on campus. The office’s space was small with just two rooms, and we started the office with furniture from other departments and centers on campus. We collected desks from the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), were given couches and chairs from the PRIDE and Women’s Resource Centers, and held onto cabinets, tables, and chairs left previously by the Serna Center. The chairs and couches were different colors and the cabinets and tables varied in wood grains. Now some may have walked into the office thinking nothing matched, but to the staff and our students it all came together.

When the Fall 2014 Semester began, and the campus transitioned into full swing, so did the FCP office. It took a little time at first to get the word out about the office, however once students learned about the space they began to make it their own. From its beginning, the program made it clear that this was a community space. Eventually a wave of students flowed into the space like clockwork and once it hit noon and lunchtime came around, you just knew the office would soon be filled with students, talking and laughing while eating and sharing food. The office transformed into a safe space for students to come together, de-stress, and be their whole selves.

The FCP office is still very young, but even in its short time on campus the rapid growth of the program and its students have already outgrown the space. However, it has become a home base on campus that has never existed before for the AAPI community at Sacramento State.

For students like Michael Saguin, the FCP office has also been a place where he has been able to find mentorship and guidance from students in previous FCP cohorts. Brothers Andrew and Alan Yang both call the FCP Office their “second home,” and according to Alan, “we don’t treat each other like peers, but as family.” For Pakou Her, “the FCP office is a safe space, like a second home, where I am able to focus on my studies and be open-minded with a group of peers who endure similar challenges.” And Angela Sarte believes the FCP office encompasses the program’s philosophy of coming “full circle” in saying that “being able to have a space like this gives us students a chance to interact and connect more with other students and staff. Full Circle indeed is our foundation of the ripple effect on passing on that kindness, compassion, and perseverance to follow the dreams we have.”

The FCP office and its students are some of the things I miss most about Sacramento State. Just like the sentiments shared by students from the different cohorts, I also consider the space a “second home” on campus and know that I have gained another family through FCP. From my firsthand experience, I know that FCP and the office plays a crucial role in ensuring the growth of support for the AAPI community at Sacramento State. I believe the current FCP office is just a start in providing AAPI students a communal space on campus, and its unprecedented success inspires hope that someday the space will become larger to better serve the AAPI community on campus.

Marietess Masulit is an M.S.Ed. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.