Near-peer counseling emerges as a more personal approach to nudging

Colleges in recent years have turned to low-cost “nudges,” such as text-message and email reminders, to help students start, and succeed in, their degree pursuits. But recent studies have highlighted the limitations of that approach and may further fuel programs that prioritize personal connections and use near-peer mentors to support at-risk students, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

High-tech nudges have their limits, studies show

As many as one in four low-income students accepted to college never make it to their first day of classes, often derailed across the summer by second thoughts, financial challenges, and registration complexities. Early experiments using nudging—a behavioral economics concept that encourages action via low-touch interventions—to prevent this so-called “summer melt” showed promise. However, recent research testing more impersonal nudging on a broader scale produced “discouraging” results, reinforcing “how important a previously existing relationship is to the effectiveness of nudging.”

More personal communication, the Chronicle says, was key to the success of the low-cost, targeted outreach effort at the University of Michigan, which used colorful, personalized letters to encourage low-income students to apply.

Georgia State, meanwhile, has used detailed student data to thoughtfully remind students of financial aid deadlines and answers student questions via an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot, Pounce. The chatbot has helped reduce summer melt by more than a third, according to a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed. Crucially, Georgia State also views the tool as complementing—rather than replacing—more human support.

Near-peer counseling shows promise

When it comes to curbing summer melt, studies confirm that “programs that rely on human interaction—in the form of one-to-one counseling, near-peer coaching, workshops, and personalized communication—may hold the most promise,” writes The Hechinger Report. A growing number of schools are implementing so-called near-peer models, which pair high school and college students with mentors who graduated recently and are familiar with the students’ experiences and challenges. “Everyone understands that young people listen to other young people differently than they do to adults,” says Heather Cristol, an assistant principal at a New York City high school that uses near-peer coaching to encourage college enrollment.

The eight-year-old program, called College Bridge, has 45 college-age coaches helping 3,800 high school students with college applications and enrollment. Coaches in the program also support students as they navigate financial aid details, often accompanying them on campus visits. High schools who have participated in the program for at least two years have seen a 12 percent increase in their students’ postsecondary enrollment.

Colleges also are turning to near-peer coaching to help increase students’ semester-to-semester persistence once they enroll, reports Inside Higher Ed. Nine public and private institutions have implemented a program called Catalyze, which pairs at-risk students with young alumni of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Through Catalyze, alumni coach the students for up to six years. Run by the nonprofit AmeriCorps organization College Possible, the program assigns each coach as many as 120 first-generation, Pell Ggrant-eligible students. Coaches help students navigate financial aid processes, connect them with available academic and counseling resources, and counsel them as other hurdles arise.

University of Cincinnati for instance, is piloting Catalyze with 450 first-year students and four coaches. “There’s someone waking up in the morning, worrying about the nonacademic components that make up a student’s life,” Lisa Holstrom, senior assistant dean at University of Cincinnati, told Inside Higher Ed. “We have great academic advising… but they can’t always address the holistic issues those students face.”

As a relatively new program, Catalyze does not yet have four-year retention results, but some partner institutions have reported positive early outcomes, including a 12 percent average increase in participating students’ year-to-year retention rates, compared with low-income peers who did not participate in the program.

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