Simple nudges may boost use of basic needs supports, Hope Center says

A new report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University highlights the importance of educating students about available basic-needs supports. While many colleges have developed “basic needs hubs” for students experiencing gaps in food, housing, transportation, and other necessities, just a fraction of those students ever access the resources.

Hope Center researchers set out to better understand how community colleges can boost utilization of basic needs hubs, and how that might affect students’ academic performance. They focused on Amarillo College in Texas, known for its comprehensive approach to meeting students’ basic needs.

The resulting report, “Supporting the Whole Community College Student: The Impact of Nudging for Basic Needs Security,” indicates that sending emails to select students more than doubled the use of Amarillo College’s basic needs center and increased a student’s chances of completing developmental education by 20 percent.

Nudging students to use available supports

The Hope Center for years has been tracking Amarillo’s Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC), which assists students in accessing transportation, child care, emergency aid, public benefits, textbooks, counseling, career guidance, and more. A food pantry and clothing closet are also present.

As of 2019, the ARC served only 13 percent of students at Amarillo, which estimated that two-thirds of its students were experiencing basic needs insecurity.

Related: How one college uncovers student needs beyond the classroom >

Hoping to increase ARC use, the college sent personalized emails to a randomly selected group of 1,000 low-income students enrolled in developmental education courses. (Amarillo College has since done away with developmental education courses given evidence that they can hamper college completion and instead uses a “corequisite mediation” model involving “concurrent classes, supplemental instruction, or extra tutoring.”)

The emails emphasized that supports were available to all students in abundance, reminded students that they belonged, and encouraged them to seek out help.

Among students who received the emails in the 2018-19 academic year, 56 percent visited the ARC at least once, compared with 22 percent in a control group. Students who were nudged also passed their developmental education courses at a rate of 71 percent, compared to 59 percent of non-nudged students.

Cara Crowley, Amarillo’s vice president of strategic initiatives, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education that she hopes that other colleges will notice the importance of doing targeted outreach, “getting to the heart of their data and understanding who their students are, developing a system to identify those students, and then outreach and provide services to those students.”

The Hope Center, meanwhile, is urging increased investment in supports for students’ basic needs and says it has similar studies underway at Dallas College, Compton College, and several other community colleges.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Graduation rates: Mismatch between 6-year stats and 4-year expectations

Ideally, students would avoid colleges and universities that graduate few students on time, but the government’s use of a six-year “success” rate complicates those assessments.