Digital alerts: The power—and peril—of nudging students

Universities are helping nontraditional and first-generation students prepare for—and succeed in school—through notifications to their digital devices. Used correctly, these nudges “steer someone toward a better decision without taking away their choice,” writes Education Dive.

Nudges can take the form of text messages, emails, and alerts, notifying students when deadlines are approaching, requirements are missing, or new resources are available. When schools use robust student data to effectively target students in need of help with relevant nudges, the practice can reduce summer melt, boost enrollment, and increase retention.

Artificial intelligence assisting students

For example, North Carolina-based Winston-Salem State University used an artificial intelligence chatbot called AdmitHub to reduce the number of students arriving on campus with incomplete enrollment requirements. Part of the university’s Ram Ready initiative, the technology reminds students to pay their school bills, obtain immunizations, and submit their final transcripts—all requirements to move into first-year dorms.

Education Dive notes that pushing out that sort of information is particularly helpful at schools like Winston-Salem State, a historically black university where a large percentage of students are the first in their families to attend college. One year after implementing the chatbot, Winston-Salem State had seen a 74 percent increase in new first-year students meeting their financial requirements, and a 37 percent increase in immunization completions.

The University of Washington Tacoma, meanwhile, has used an app called Persistence Plus to remind students about Pell grant deadlines, and will soon target students close to graduation with encouragement to complete their remaining credits. Nationwide, students using Persistence Plus who were at greatest risk of dropping out have experienced a 6 percent increase in degree completion, according to a recent study.

Taking responsibility for student success

These efforts signal a growing awareness of the complex reasons students struggle in college.

“Until recently, most universities have taken the attitude that if a student doesn’t succeed, it’s the student’s problem when, in fact, we’re taking their money and we’re letting them down,” said Colleen Carmean, associate vice chancellor for academic innovation at UW Tacoma. “There are some universities that are doing a really good job of understanding that we have some responsibility to know our students, to offer services that will assist them in making the right choices and to get them to the finish line.”

Nudges, not noise

However, there are potential downsides. When nudges are not deployed thoughtfully, they can turn into annoying noise, embarrassing nagging, or even discouraging messages. For example, students struggling with attendance due to health issues or competing responsibilities could receive a warning that they may be dropped from a course and subsequently give up on the course.

Proponents of the technology say artificial intelligence nudges are not a substitute for a supportive campus culture. Rather, they say, alerts should be used to augment college administrators’ insight and outreach. Noting the potential for harm if biases influence colleges’ targeting of nudges, experts further call for ethical consideration of data’s limitations and a diverse array of perspectives at the table when setting alert strategies.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” writes Ernest Ezeugo of public policy think tank New America. “It really does take careful consideration, careful thinking to deploy nudges… in a way that doesn’t harm students.”


Georgetown is committed to ensuring that all students have the resources and support they need to succeed. The Georgetown Scholars Program provides programmatic support to more than 650 undergraduates, and the 50-year-old Community Scholars Program prepares its multicultural cohort of first-generation college students for success with a five-week academic summer program and ongoing support. The Regents Science Scholars Program further expands opportunities for students from traditionally underserved communities pursuing studies in the sciences.

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