Personalized Outreach: Affecting Behavioral Change

Ben Castleman is Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia (UVA). He is also the Faculty Director of the University of Virginia-U.S. Army Partnership on the Educational Trajectories of Soldiers and their Dependents. He will present Data-driven behavioral nudges: A low-cost strategy to improve postsecondary education at the 2016 Forum.   

BenCastleman.JPGeAIR: Without giving too much away about your new book, The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messages and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education, what are some ways that IR professionals can use behavioral economics to positively impact student success on their campuses?

In behavioral work, the use of text messaging has received a lot of attention in the media; however, the role that data plays in IR professionals making messages effective has not. What we know is that people are more responsive to information when it is easily digestible, actionable, and personalized. IR professionals have access to a lot of data about what students are doing, e.g., registering for financial aid, registering for the spring term, etc. They have the ability to reach out to students in more personalized ways. An example might be a text that says, “I notice you haven’t registered for the spring term yet, here is a link to get started.” Colleges need to implement more personal outreach programs that draw on the data to which IR professionals already have access.

eAIR: One of your primary goals is to improve college access and success for low-income and non-traditional students. How is the U.S. as a whole doing in this regard and how can we improve?

The short answer is that we need to do better. When you look at certain measures of education – such as the academic achievement gap between African American students and white students – we seem to be doing better and making progress. In terms of college access and completion for economically disadvantaged students, the gap is actually getting wider. When things are getting worse and not better, we must implement plans for improvement. Solutions exist for economically disadvantaged students that range from resource-intensive federal aid to more low-cost behavior-based tools, such as reminders via text messaging. On one hand, we need to make more progress, but on the other hand, we do have a rich tool set to draw from. I don’t believe there is one right way to solve these problems. It is a matter of institutions choosing which strategies work best for them and then making the commitment to carry those strategies forward.

eAIR: How can IR professionals better utilize predictive analytics to impact student success?

There has been a lot of discussion about the opportunity for more predictive analytical work in IR. The analytics have a potential to recognize those students who might be struggling, but can also identify pathways to success that students might not be aware of, for example, particularly useful course sequences. We should build on this increasingly strong foundation of predictive analytics by applying behavioral science insights to ensure that the results of these analyses are communicated to students, staff, and faculty in a way that promotes informed decision making.

eAIR: In your role as Faculty Director for the UVA-U.S. Army Partnership on the Educational Trajectories of Soldiers and their Dependents, what is being done to support military-connected students and their families?

This work is currently in development. Historically, there has been a lot of success applying certain strategies to students in traditional educational settings, such as high school and college. However, others are pursuing education in less traditional ways: after a career, after raising a family, etc. These service members have defended their country for so long and want to prepare for life after the military. Our goal is to ultimately help service members and their dependents align with their post-military educational needs and interests.

eAIR: As Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at UVA, what do you believe is the most important idea you are conveying to your students - our future leaders?

I imagine that educators have been trying for a long time to convey similar messages to young people about the opportunity to assist others who aren’t as fortunate as they are (for example, being able to attain a UVA education). While the world is bigger and more complex, it is easier to reach more people and to make a difference using technology. This is not to say that technology is the only answer, but it has made outreach less challenging than it was a generation ago. I think sometimes students feel that there is only a right and a wrong path for the course their lives should take. I encourage them to find work they can take on that improves the lives of others while still taking on the work that they are passionate about. My advice is that no matter what your work or role becomes, to bring grace and humility to whatever you do.



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