Blog Post
Behavioral Science in Higher Education, Part 1

Principles for Infusing Behavioral Insights into Higher Education Institutions


Community colleges are a gateway to postsecondary degrees for many students, including those from low-income backgrounds and marginalized populations. Yet once students enter community college, they are faced with a host of complex administrative processes that can make it difficult to succeed. To address these challenges, 11 community colleges in New Jersey and two Historically Black Community Colleges (one in Alabama and one in Mississippi) with nearly 100 college staff members across 13 institutions, joined the OnPath project led by MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS). The goal was to help community college students stay enrolled during the pandemic. Through a second phase of the OnPath project, occurring from 2022 to 2027, CABS is working to further refine and potentially implement the solutions developed in the first phase.

The OnPath project facilitated a powerful combination of people and knowledge by bringing together college staff members with operational knowledge about administrative barriers, evidence from rigorous MDRC research about what helps students persist in college, and facilitators from CABS. Through a series of workshops, one-on-one coaching sessions, and evidence-based templates of messaging strategies, researchers collaborated with staff members to (1) develop student outreach campaigns that simplified registration information, connected students to available financial aid, and encouraged continuous enrollment based on prior rigorous evidence about what works to encourage enrollment; and (2) design new student-centered strategies to improve student persistence during the pandemic.

MDRC, with support from Ascendium Education Group and ECMC Foundation, helped colleges use the OnPath approach to accelerate innovation and improve student retention at the same time. During the first phase of the project, the four key principles of the OnPath approach aimed to (1) assemble staff members from various departments in the college to work together to help community college students stay enrolled during the pandemic; (2) encourage staff members to be “designers” in all aspects of their jobs, focusing on where they have autonomy to change outcomes for students; (3) build on available evidence about effective strategies to encourage persistence; and (4) convey that all communications and ideas need to be student-centered, that is, focusing on students’ experiences and needs during each phase of the project.

Cross-Functional Teams

Cross-functional teams bring together staff members from different departments who deal directly with students, which helps to create a better student experience and facilitate coordination between different departments. Each college participating in OnPath assembled a cross-functional team that included staff members from the departments of financial aid, student services, communications, marketing, and the Office of the Registrar. In one example, a college cross-functional team worked together to review the college’s online registration process. They realized that several links were broken, language was outdated or incorrect, and students could get caught in a website loop that would lead to registration errors. Having this team assembled allowed the college to effectively fix the website’s errors. The team also helped to ensure that proposed ideas would be implemented by bringing staff members who were responsible for implementation into the decision-making process.

One member of a cross-functional team shared:

Kindly said, it forced collaboration between financial aid processes to support enrollment processes leveraging the availability of potential [state aid] funds as the carrot. Students who we interacted with appreciated the more personal assistance to navigate the issues they were experiencing with financial aid at the federal/state/college level as we broke it down into smaller, bite-sized steps, so they could get answers regarding the availability of funds, etc.

Designing with Intention

By keeping students’ perspectives at the center of the OnPath approach and being explicit in thinking about students’ experiences in each of these decisions, staff members were able to mitigate negative outcomes for students. College staff members focused on changes to their college environment—for example, their websites, messaging strategies, and registration processes. The goal in taking this approach was to reduce the tendency to attribute students’ actions to individual characteristics, and instead focus on ascribing their behavior to the situational factors outside of their control, which can reduce biases. In short, MDRC and the colleges focused on how the colleges were organized and structured, and scrutinized college policies and procedures through the student lens. A college administrator shared, “I think there has been an emphasis on intent behind messaging to students. I learned that there is a difference [between] talking “at” students and starting conversations with students in mind.”

Building on Evidence to Inform Best Practices

OnPath leveraged insights generated from past evidence-based communication strategies and adapted them to new contexts. The communication strategy was anchored to MDRC’s work with 10 colleges in Ohio as part of the Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment (EASE) project that took place in 2017. The EASE project increased students’ persistence from the spring term to the summer term through a messaging campaign, implemented with and without last-dollar tuition assistance to cover any gaps in funding for students to take summer courses.[1] The messaging campaign directly addressed student and institutional barriers to summer course-taking, such as a lack of information, by simplifying registration information, clearly informing students of available federal and state aid, and integrating information across college departments. 

A rigorous, randomized controlled trial that included 10,000 students across the 10 colleges in Ohio that participated in EASE found that the messaging campaign increased persistence into the summer term for students with low incomes by 5 percentage points. [2]  When the campaign was combined with last-dollar tuition assistance, the impact was even greater (12 percentage points). This research demonstrated how incorporating behavioral science principles into student-centered communications can simplify financial aid and registration information. OnPath built on this research to further increase persistence and help students advance toward a degree. 

What colleges shared:

With the behavioral competencies MDRC has presented, our messaging has become more personable and engaging for our student outreach. Many have inquired about their opportunities to enroll and receive financial assistance, and this has given our prospect for retention a new advantage. 

Creating Student-Centered Messages and Policies

College staff members who deal directly with students are responsible for translating college regulations and guidelines for students who are reading the messages and need to take action. CABS helped colleges review and then rewrite their communication strategies from the perspective of the student, instead of the perspective of a college staff person. This resulted in some very different messaging strategies and often led to reflecting on the policy and how to improve other aspects of the college system. For example, colleges revamped their messages about new funding options during the pandemic. A standard message may have shared information such as, “There is new aid available, and you might be eligible for it. Contact the [X] Office.” Through OnPath, the colleges provided more specific information based on the student’s circumstances, including some personalized funding estimates, and sent messages that more closely linked how this new aid might impact the student. The colleges also coupled messages with policy changes, like crafting communications that they were eliminating small fees for students when possible (under federal regulations) and made those messages prominent for students. 

What colleges shared:

It’s been helpful to see which mediums students are most responsive to—texting was a lot more effective than emails, snail mail, or phone calls. It was also helpful to emphasize one clear action step, rather than overloading students with lots of direction at once. 

OnPath collaborated with nearly 100 college staff members across 13 institutions. Each college crafted messaging campaigns that met its students’ needs, collectively sending over 100 messages using multiple modalities (emails, text messages, and mailings). The messages were simple and action-oriented. Researchers also spoke to students to better understand students’ communication preferences, how they decided what to open and read, their awareness of financial aid resources (such as Pell Grants and state aid), and barriers and facilitators to persistence during the pandemic. Major themes were centered around finances (clarifying funding sources for students, especially with new federal funding available), advising and student services (helping students’ complete registration and navigating college processes), and balancing enrolling in higher education with other priorities and roles to fill at home. The messaging campaigns incorporated these themes and were adjusted and sent out through the lifecycle of the project.

Creating effective messaging campaigns was central to the project, but researchers also recognized the many other structural barriers that colleges could address to facilitate continued enrollment. Reviewing communications closely is a key first step to uncovering other, bigger challenges that may exist within an organization. As a result, in the second phase of OnPath, colleges have shifted their focus to other changes they can make to transform their students’ experiences and keep them enrolled.

MDRC will continue working with community colleges in the next phase of the OnPath project, using behavioral insights to design solutions that address barriers to persistence. Learn more about the strides made in the OnPath project in posts about the second phase of the project: 

[1] Last dollar tuition assistance is a type of financial aid that specifically addresses the final portion of tuition expenses that may not be covered by other grants, scholarships, or financial aid.

[2] A randomized controlled trial is a scientific experiment where participants are randomly assigned to either an experimental group receiving a treatment or a control group receiving either a placebo or standard treatment. This randomization helps minimize bias and ensures that any observed differences in outcomes are likely due to the treatment.