Attending college is a quagmire of complex decision-making. For years, students make choices that have multiple options, short- and long-term ramifications, and unknowable outcomes—from the initial decision whether to go to college to declaring a major, figuring out financing, and earning good grades.
In this context, the thoughtful application of behavioral science could potentially change the academic and career trajectories of countless individuals. Yet colleges and universities have not embedded behavioral science within their institutions to the same extent as have some businesses or governments. Instead, behavioral scientists and research organizations have mostly engaged higher education from the periphery, designing nudges to change specific, singular, and time-bound student behaviors, such as choosing a college or completing financial aid (like FAFSA).
For the past nine years at Persistence Plus, I’ve collaborated with leaders and practitioners in higher education to try to move beyond behavioral science as just nudges. Together, we’ve used behavioral science to redesign processes related to enrollment management, financial aid, and student support. I’ve also taught faculty, advisors, and administrators how to apply behavioral science to change students’ mindsets around education and foster more adaptive behaviors in their classrooms and on campus. But as an outsider not embedded within the culture of each institution, it remains difficult to scale these strategies to other student behaviors, to other departments, and to other colleges and universities.
The recent publication of “A Manifesto for Applying Behavioral Science” by Michael Hallsworth of the Behavioural Insights Team creates an opportune moment for leaders in higher education to adopt behavioral science as a holistic way of thinking. Hallsworth’s manifesto outlines the major critiques and obstacles currently facing behavioral science after its first decade and offers ideas for how to address them in the decade ahead. Three of Hallsworth’s proposals feel particularly promising for helping higher education fulfill its mission in the near and long term: use behavioral science as a lens, see the system, and build behavioral science into organizations. Here’s how each can have an impact in higher education.
Use behavioral science as a lens
Behavioral scientists are often given a broken thing to fix and asked to choose their tool, be it changing defaults, adjusting social norms, and so on. Hallsworth warns, however, that a tool analogy “limits behavioral science to fixing concrete aspects of predetermined interventions.” I would add that it prevents us from asking deeper questions about what drives student behavior, the cost of which is evident in the many fruitless efforts to scale successful, localized interventions. Even worse, some attempts to nudge students without fully understanding the antecedents of their behavior have caused unintended consequences such as lower grades and loan defaults.
When behavioral science is used as a lens, however, we begin not by defining the outcome but by being curious about students. Colleges often come to me with a desired behavior, like getting more students to use tutoring, but they haven’t asked students themselves why they don’t already. Years ago, I spoke with students at a community college and learned that they stopped going to the tutoring center because there was often a long wait. The problem wasn’t behavioral, or even about the students; it was institutional capacity.
To help higher education fulfill its mission in the near and long term: use behavioral science as a lens, see the system, and build behavioral science into organizations.
Hallsworth argues that the first step to effectively applying behavioral science is to diagnose a behavior by understanding people’s goals, strategies, feelings, beliefs, and interpretations of that behavior. Only then should you define your intended behavioral outcome and, importantly, how to get there.
For example, reenrolling working adults is currently a major push in many states’ education policy, and the prevailing narrative is that is the best way to entice them back to college is to focus on increasing their earning potential. But talking to working adults often reveals far more personal motives, such as completing “unfinished business,” being a role model for their families, or the personal satisfaction of becoming a college graduate. Financial versus personal motives require different designs to achieve the same behavior, reenrollment, and addressing both may be necessary to maximize these efforts.
Although using behavioral science as a lens often requires more upfront investment to understand the scope of a problem, the payoff is a more student-centered, impactful solution.
See the system
When we use behavioral science as a lens, Hallsworth argues that behavioral science will move away from a series of narrowly defined nudges to instead understanding the complex adaptive systems that impact the population on which we’re focused. In higher education, these systems include college policies, classroom practices, technology tools, design of learning spaces, and more.
When we see the system we improve our ability to design interventions that could have positive, cascading effects rather than changing a single, isolated behavior. For example, several psychological interventions (e.g., growth mindsets, social belonging, difference education) have produced disproportionately large effects when delivered during critical transitions, like orientation or early in students’ first semester. These brief programs change students’ behaviors from the start, allowing those changes to compound and fundamentally alter students’ college experience.
This entails redefining what problems those who work in higher education are solving: instead of helping students navigate a complex bureaucracy, they should focus on redesigning the processes and structures within higher education.
Adopting this recommendation will entail redefining what problems those who work in higher education are solving: instead of helping students navigate a complex bureaucracy, they should focus on redesigning the processes and structures within higher education. Some of this work has begun—examples include simplifying course decisions through meta-majors or guided pathways, streamlining student support services by housing them in a “one-stop shop,” and the simplified FAFSA debuting in December 2023.
The same goes for using a behavioral approach to support higher education’s employees. Seeing the system that determines satisfaction and retention, burnout, and mental health will certainly benefit faculty and staff, but also be instrumental in indirectly improving student life. However, until colleges and universities weave behavioral science into their everyday operations and become what Hallsworth calls a behaviorally enabled organization, any beneficial changes are unlikely to ripple throughout the institution and create positive outcomes at scale.
Build behavioral science into organizations
Once we view student success through a behavioral science lens and see the complex systems underlying student decision making, it becomes clear that behavioral scientists work best not as mechanics who repair broken systems, but as engineers who design better systems. Higher education, therefore, needs to diffuse those engineers throughout the organization.
To that end, Hallsworth recommends that organizations change their view of behavioral science “from projects to processes, from commissions to culture.” Only when behavioral science expertise is diffused across units and incorporated into all key organizational functions can a college become behaviorally enabled. So how might higher education go about this transformation?
1. Leverage the faculty
Leaders with deep expertise in behavioral science are likely already employed in social and behavioral sciences departments. Consider ways to focus their energy inward to tackle institutional challenges, perhaps using their own classrooms or departments as testing grounds. As they find promising solutions, build the infrastructure to disseminate and implement those ideas college and system wide. Unlike higher education’s normal approach—giving faculty additional unpaid and underappreciated committee work—provide funding and recognition that incentivizes faculty to make higher education policy an important piece of their academic portfolio.
Behavioral scientists work best not as mechanics who repair broken systems, but as engineers who design better ones. Higher education, therefore, needs to diffuse those engineers throughout the organization.
2. Practice cross-functional training
I have spent the past several years providing colleges with behavioral science professional development, but too often this work is focused on a single functional unit, like academic advisors or faculty. Instead, create trainings that include representatives from across campus (e.g., enrollment; financial aid; registrar; student affairs). Not only will this diffuse behavioral science knowledge across the institution, but it will bring together the key players that impact student experience and make it easier for them to see the adaptive system that determines whether a student graduates or withdraws.
3. Let behavioral scientists be engineers
Whether you look for faculty or outside consultants, bring behavioral science experts into conversations early. From redesigning college-to-career pathways to building a new cafeteria, behavioral scientists can help gather and interpret student voices, foresee and circumvent behavioral challenges, and identify measurable and meaningful evaluation metrics. The impact of their expertise will be even greater when they work in an environment with a diffuse knowledge of behavioral science already in place.
Preparing higher education for the future
Because colleges and universities have mostly avoided the sunk costs and scars of behavioral science’s early adopters, I believe higher education stands ready for a paradigm shift in how it approaches student success. These three proposals for redefining the scope of behavioral science could have a huge impact on higher education as we strive to increase enrollment, affordability, persistence, equity, learning, graduation, and career success. And, looking to the future, the thoughtful incorporation of behavioral science into the everyday workings of higher education will also help build institutions that can successfully navigate whatever the next major disruptor turns out to be.
Disclosure: Michael Hallsworth, who is mentioned in the article, is a member of the BIT, which provides financial support to Behavioral Scientist as an organizational partner. Organizational partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.