College is hard enough. Students must challenge themselves to think conceptually, to question preconceived notions, to push harder and study longer. After all, that Calculus III course isn’t going to pass itself. 

Surprisingly, though, some of the biggest obstacles to student success have nothing to do with academics.

No matter how qualified students are intellectually, navigating the seemingly mundane yet complicated array of administrative tasks can be a burden that causes them to fail. And it starts even before a student is on campus as required paperwork and deadlines pile up, from applying for student aid to securing a dorm room to registering for classes. 

Overwhelmed, some accepted students fail to show up on day one, a concept known as summer melt. 

Daniel J. Robb, Associate Vice Chancellor at the University of South Carolina Aiken, identified four common reasons why students falter in their college journey, which he presented at the 2019 AACRAO SEM conference. They are: 

  1. Informational complexity
  2. Information barriers
  3. Behavioral economics
  4. Adolescent development aspects

There’s good news though. A growing body of research is pointing toward a single technology as a way to address each of these four problems. 

1. Information Complexity

If filling out paperwork and meeting deadlines wasn’t a problem for you, congratulations. But, many of us had help from our parents, whether we remember it or not. 

First-generation students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t always have that support. Their parents may themselves lack the experience necessary to help their children throughout college. They may work irregular hours or multiple jobs that prevent them from being as engaged as they’d like to be. And that’s just the beginning. 

Research from Benjamin L. Castleman, University of Virginia, and Lindsay C. Page, University of Pittsburgh, shows that universities are not adequately informing these students and their families about expectations and what is required to succeed. 

Many colleges and universities, for example, do not adequately explain how much college costs and how to pay for it. For middle-class students whose parents are used to banking and borrowing, this isn’t as much of a problem. But studies have shown that lower-income families struggle to estimate the cost of college tuition. Furthermore, the complex forms and technical language used in finance can confuse and discourage some families. They may even believe — incorrectly — that credit problems will prevent them from receiving financial aid.

2. Information Barriers

In other situations, higher education institutions erect barriers that prevent families from accessing information in the first place, according to Castleman and Page. 

“An even more basic problem is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds may fail even to access their tuition bill or other important college information…” the researchers wrote.

Many, if not most, universities have adopted web portals for delivering key information to students and their families. Critical forms and paperwork live within these portals. Yet, for families without reliable internet access, navigating these portals can be difficult. 

3. Behavioral Economics

Behavioral economists acknowledge that humans are emotional creatures, hardwired to make bad decisions.

We are easily distracted. We procrastinate and commit other types of self-sabotage, sometimes unconsciously. Many of us seek immediate gratification, or – as an economist would say – we “highly discount future benefits relative to present costs.” 

This problem affects all ages and stretches across the socioeconomic spectrum. 

How many of us know someone who has “discounted the future benefit” of a comfortable retirement in favor of an unnecessary sports car or bigger house? With encouragement and reminders, though, many people will make the right decisions. 

4. Adolescent Development

We all commit judgment errors, but traditional college students are especially prone. After all, they’re still kids. Not legally, necessarily. But mentally and emotionally? Absolutely. 

The brains of teenagers and young adults are still developing. And the internal systems that govern reason, self-awareness, concentration, decision-making, planning and self-regulation are still immature. Administrative tasks, therefore, can feel overwhelming and stressful, and they are more likely to put them off in favor of something fun. Some will abandon them entirely.  

Reminders can help mitigate “attentional failure” according to researchers. For many, those nudges come from parents. But not for every student. 

So, how can institutions help?

Additional outreach and support go a long way toward student success. But, how can colleges and universities do that when their staff is already overworked? 

In their paper, Castleman and Page suggest that text messaging campaigns in which students received personalized reminders of important tasks to complete are both effective and cost-effective. 

Text messaging is the key to nudging students toward action — and, ultimately, success. 

Few teenagers and even young adults check email anymore. Yet the overwhelming majority text daily. Generation Z opens only 20 percent of their emails but check 98 percent of text messages

 “A text message campaign can be implemented to provide students with institution- and task- specific information together with links to web pages relevant to completing a given task (for example, registering for orientation),” the researchers wrote. “Finally, the text outreach may positively impact college outcomes simply by nudging students to complete required tasks by the relevant deadline.”