Notes on Nudging | Inside Higher Ed

Why don’t men respond to nudges?

A new report from Sara Goldrick-Rab, Kallie Clark, Christine Baker-Smith and Collin Witherspoon of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia studies the impact of “nudges” — short, targeted messages — on student use of a campus resource center. The campus is Amarillo College, and the resource center focuses on student basic needs.

The report offers a few takeaways and a major unanswered question.

The point of the resource center is to help students whose lives may get in the way of their studies to complete their degrees successfully and thereby improve their economic situation. A campaign of nudging — a term I first encountered when I discovered behavioral economics — increased student use of the center and had a positive impact on completion rates for remedial classes. The impact dissipated as students moved into later semesters.

The part that jumped off the page for me, though, was the different effects of nudging when students were disaggregated by sex. Simply put, students who identified as women were much more responsive to nudges than were students who identified as men.

The report notes that the difference can’t be ascribed to different levels of need. If anything, male students are more likely to have unmet basic needs than female students. It’s not that the men don’t need help. They do. But they don’t respond to offers of help as often.

Both nationally and locally, we know that young men of color, and particularly young Black men, are at the greatest risk of dropping out of college without a degree. They also frequently have the highest levels of unmet needs. But for some reason, the nudging campaign didn’t have the same results there.

As a practitioner, this raises a sticky issue. Do you embrace a low-cost and scalable method that will make a positive difference for some, even if it makes existing gaps between groups even worse? On the one hand, helping some students is better than helping no students. On the other, exacerbating equity gaps is not what community colleges are for.

As with improv comedy, I think the best answer is “yes, and …” Yes, do what you can to help whom you can. But keep casting about for ways to reach students for whom the existing methods don’t work. Maybe that involves interpersonal contact, as opposed to form letters. Maybe it works better with cohorts rather than individuals. It could be any number of things. The key is to keep trying, and to keep reporting honestly on what happens. With each new attempt, we get closer to an answer.

Kudos to the HOPE Center, and to Amarillo College. They tried something important and reported on it honestly. The report doesn’t read like an advocacy piece; it reads like it was written by people who care about getting it right. That’s exactly the kind of report of which we need many, many more.

One of which could be about how to reach men.

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