Tiny Interventions Can Help Reverse Our Sky-High College Dropout Rate

Little tricks, like sending occasional supportive text messages, make students vastly more likely to finish college.

Tiny Interventions Can Help Reverse Our Sky-High College Dropout Rate
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America’s college dropout rate could be considered an epidemic. Only 59% of students at four-year schools are completing their degree within six years, and another 29% at two-year institutions are finishing within three years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


But this so-called “completion crisis” might also be fixable through a series of small institutional tweaks that encourage students to make smarter financial, social, and academic decisions for themselves. That’s the takeaway from “Nudging for Success,” a recent report from Ideas42, a nonprofit behavioral design firm, which spent several years conducting 16 experiments at 13 schools across the country.

Nudging is a behavioral science term for making almost invisible institutional changes to reset default behaviors that might not be in a person’s best interest. “By taking a look at the day-to-day perspective of the students actually going through the process of obtaining a higher education, we can uncover many things that we would never recognize otherwise, and take steps to remedy many of the subtle logistical and psychological sticking points we found that are standing in their way,” says Alissa Fishbane, the program’s managing director.

For instance, the team discovered that, academics aside, many students who were leaving school did so because they lacked a sense of belonging. At San Francisco State University, a few simple changes, like incoming students seeing a video message from peers, answering a self-affirming questionnaire, and receiving supportive text messages throughout the year boosted retention rates 10% among first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.

At ASU, where 4 out of 5 kids were missing a priority deadline for federal financial aide, sending out staggered email messages to give both kids and parents more notice and divide the complicated process into a series of manageable tasks boosted application rates by 72%, resulting in far more students being able to secure non-interest bearing student loans.

One of the most surprising aspects was how students themselves engaged with those nudges. At Community College of Philadelphia and SUNY Brockport, students began texting back to messaging services designed to help them balance school and life stress or avoid academic trouble. “We ended up uncovering a really useful delivery channel for college administrators to reach and positively impact students that may have been underestimated in the past,” Fishbane says.

Most of the plans tested will be scaled up at those schools where they were successful. Because they are fairly cheap and easy implement, hopefully other schools will adopt them. Now that educators are aware of these simple tricks, Ideas42 suggests thinking bigger. The report suggests potential innovations like “smart registration platforms” that create customized class schedules based on major and time restraints, including built-in study blocks to manage stress. “We see this as merely the beginning of long-term efforts to make these insights part of the way higher ed administrators and policymakers approach problem solving,” Fishbane says.


The study was backed by the Lumina Foundation, Citi Foundation, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which over the last two decades has invested billions in primary education reform only to see some initiatives struggle. That includes a widely adopted plan to shrink school sizes, which ultimately proved ineffective, and a recent push to adopt the Common Core curriculum, which educators have had trouble implementing. “The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers,” admitted CEO Sue Desmond-Hellman in an open letter earlier this year, drawing concern from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post about the potential dangers of handing over kids’ futures to outside influencers.

Employing stay-in-school nudges is an obviously less drastic tactic. Ideas42 reports that 93% of high school seniors plan to go to college. Keeping those who enroll is another part of the success equation.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.