‘Nudge campaign’ yields big jumps at Del Mar

Del Mar College students celebrate their graduation.

Over the past year, Del Mar College in Texas has doubled down on identifying and supporting students who were close to earning a degree but at risk of not completing.

“We educate a diverse, and typically underserved population of students, including adult learners and commuters,” said Rito Silva, the college’s vice president of student affairs. “We knew that many of these students were close to completing their degree, but still dropping out due to academic or life challenges. We needed to find a way to identify those students earlier.”

Using a federal grant and the services of Civitas Learning, administrators used data and analytics to better understand barriers to completion in its diverse student population and focused on quickly identifying those students and intervening at the right time with the right support.

The result: A 31 percent increase in students graduating this spring and a 38 percent in credentials awarded.

Finding near completers

Supported by a Developing Hispanic Institutions Title V grant from the U.S. Education Department, Del Mar launched its initiative in fall 2016 to increase graduation applications by 20 percent over five years. It exceeded that goal within the first year (between spring 2016 and spring 2017), with a 26 percent increase in graduation applications and a 31 percent increase in the number of students graduating, between Spring 2016 and Spring 2017. This graduation season, Del Mar awarded an additional 240 credentials, marking a 38 percent increase from spring 2016.

Based on data and insights from Civitas Learning, the college was able to identify students who were at least 75 percent of the way toward a degree, but who had a high potential of dropping before graduating or earning a credential. Through tailored, timely outreach to those students, the graduation coaches were able to provide students with the academic and non-academic support needed to complete, according to the college.

“Some of these students had high persistence predictions and received a simple nudge, Silva said. “Other students, however, were shown to be a greater risk despite their previous academic progress. We didn’t know that before.”

That’s when the graduation coaches made phone calls and held one-on-one meetings with the students to help them get across the finish line.

Policy changes

Del Mar’s shift in focus from access to successful student completion or transfer reflects a national trend as more states base higher education funding on student outcomes. In 2013, Texas policymakers adopted a performance-based funding model that rewards Texas community colleges on student performance metrics from course to degree completion.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 60x30TX mandate, which aims to ensure that at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a workforce credential, certificate or degree, has prompted colleges and universities to employ new strategies to improve completion rates. When achieved, outcomes-based funding streams can be unlocked for the institution.

“In higher ed, it’s tempting to over complicate student success programs. We forget the simplicity of a nudge and how effective that kind of campaign can be,” Silva said.

Silva noted one student who had more than 100 earned credits. He not only qualified for an associate degree, but also completed enough credits for an additional credential.

“We told the student, ‘You’ve graduated. Fill out this application and go see career services. You’ve got the degree and stacked a credential on top,’” said Silva, who added that the student later sent a thank-you letter to the coaching team.

“Getting these completers through earns us success points and funding, but the most important value is with the individual student,” he said. “Seeing that the nudge campaign changed that life, that’s what it all comes down to.”

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