Back to Episode # 5

students, college, support, pandemic, summer, alice, nudging, challenges, minnesota, high school, nudges, melt, families, resources, nudge, strategies, graduate, provide, spotify, work


Liz Bolsoni, Ben Castleman, Intro, Alice Choe


Intro  00:00

Life After Now.


Liz Bolsoni  00:07
Hello, and welcome to the Life After Now podcast. I'm your host Liza Bolsoni. I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and think about what it means for your life after now. You'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have firsthand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. So today, I will be talking with Ben Castleman and Alice Choe about their research into Summer Melt and about the work they're doing at Nudge 4 Solutions Lab to boost college access and completion. Ben and Alice, thanks so much for joining me today. 


Ben Castleman  00:48
Happy to be here, Liz. Thanks for having us.


Liz Bolsoni  00:50
So could you both take a moment to just introduce yourselves a little bit?


Ben Castleman  00:54
Sure, happy to. So I'm Ben Castleman. I'm a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. Prior to being a professor, I was a high school teacher and administrator in Rhode Island. And my teaching, and research focuses entirely on strategies to improve college access and success, particularly for students from lower income backgrounds or students who are the first in their family to pursue college.


Alice Choe  01:18
Great. And I'm Alice. I'm an applied behavioral scientist at the Nudge 4 Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia. Prior to UVA, I was an intern during college during the summers at a domestic violence legal clinic, where I observed how different decision making processes for survivors was just incredibly complex. In parallel, I worked a lot with students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and helping them with their college search and application process. And this is just another prime example of seeing the different decision making factors that go into this process of applying to college and figuring out plans for after high school.


Liz Bolsoni  01:57
Thanks so much. And I have a quick question that I ask all my guests before we start. So if you were to give a word of advice or some affirmation to your high school self, what would you say?


Alice Choe  02:09
That's a fun question. Um, I think I would -- so if I had to say something to myself and affirmation for myself back in high school, I think I would remind myself to remain flexible. Things change, and different challenges and adversities come up. And while they can be difficult at the time, just remembering that there are such great people around me who are there to support, who are really just rooting for me, and turning to those resources, in times of need, can be really, can be really positive and impactful.


Ben Castleman  02:49
My words of advice, I think are actually very similar to Alice's. I think I would tell myself first to be patient. I think when I was 18, and 20, and 21, I felt a lot of pressure and even anxiety, to have my life figured out, what my career would be and what my path to success would be. And looking back, I realized that, there's a lot of years ahead of us after we finished high school, and even after we finished college, and plenty of time to figure that out, figure out what journey we want our life to take. And then I would also, echoing Alice, say to myself to seek out advice from people who I trusted. I think I tried to figure out too much on my own, made some good decisions, made a lot of bad decisions. And maybe if I'd sought out more advice, I could have reduced the number of bad decisions a little bit.


Liz Bolsoni  03:42
Thank you so much for both of your responses. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the work you do at Nudge 4, and what interested you in this line of research.


Ben Castleman  03:52
Happy to so we are a lab at the University of Virginia, but our work is, really, it occurs entirely outside the walls of UVA or even outside of its campus. We have the opportunity and really the privilege to partner with high schools and colleges and state agencies all over the country. And our work is to partner with those, those places and staff at those organizations, to design and test strategies that hopefully make it easier for students to follow through on their intentions to go to college and succeed in college. And also to make it easier for students to connect to resources or opportunities that, that are helpful for them, like financial aid or like tutoring once they get to college, that they might not know about or might not be sure how to access. And so that's the work we do. We do that through a combination of different strategies, which we'll talk about a fair amount today, I imagine. Some of them are Nudge approaches, which try to provide students with reminders and important information and to make it easy to connect to advisors and counselors. And then we also do a lot with data science. Which, same way Netflix uses data to give us recommendations of what movies to watch, or Spotify does about what we listen to, we tried to put data to work to provide students with really tailored information about pathways that for courses they take, or even jobs that they could look into after college that are a good fit for their experience in education.


Liz Bolsoni  05:33
Thank you. And it sounds like a lot of your research revolves around the concept of Summer Melt and helping combat the effects of Summer Melt. Can you talk about Summer Melt and define it for our listeners?


Ben Castleman  05:44
Sure. So Summer Melt is a, is an idea that I started to explore when I was in graduate school, and I when I was still working in the school district where I was a teacher. And what we saw was we had a lot of like -- I'm sure a lot of your listeners [are] really hard working smart, talented students who did everything they were supposed to in high school. They did really well in their classes. They applied to college, they got in, they even applied for financial aid. And by the end of high school, they had chosen where to go. So they walked across the graduation stage with every plan and every intention to go to college in the fall. And in those few months of summer, between high school graduation and the start of the fall semester in college, a lot of our students plans got derailed. They might not have accessed as much financial aid as they and their families needed. They might have been confused about required tasks they had to complete, like attending orientation, or taking academic placement tests in order to matriculate. And so the concept of summer melt is when students who again have done everything they're supposed to -- they've gotten into college, they plan to go -- but when they fail to enroll anywhere in the fall after high school, that's what we think of as Summer Melt.


Liz Bolsoni  07:01
So I'm wondering what type of students who are you seeing as most affected by this phenomenon, and how are you looking to better support these students?


Ben Castleman  07:11
Yeah, it's a good question. And unfortunately, and this, I think, speaks to, you know, societal-wide inequality, certainly inequalities in our education system. I think it's often the students who they themselves and their families stand to benefit the most from a college education in terms of you know, that, the mobility that that might create for them and their families in terms of seeking out more prosperous careers. It's often the students who would benefit the most from a college education, who experienced the most challenges during the summer. So those are students who might be the first in their family to go to college. And, you know, their parents are really committed to them and support them, but might not have had direct experience with navigating financial and procedural tasks that have to be completed the summer after high school. These might also be students who are from larger and kind of underresourced high schools where there's not as many counselors or college advisors to provide students with support during high school or certainly into the summer. So it tends to be students -- Summer Melt tends to most directly affect students from lower income backgrounds, first generation students the most. And of course, those are from a, from an equity perspective, or from from our view, from a public policy perspective, those are the students that we should most be supporting to, to both go to and then succeed in college once they're there.


Liz Bolsoni  08:45
Right. So Alice, another portion of your research actually focuses on students on the other end of the spectrum. So students who have successfully enrolled in college may have earned a significant amount of credits, and still do not complete their degree. Can you talk a little bit more about this group and what factors are maybe keeping them from graduating?


Alice Choe  09:06
Sure, I think how this, how this group is defined will vary depending on who you ask. But in one of our projects, called "Nudges to the Finish Line," we had defined these students as those who are further along in their college career. So they have at least half the credits that they need to graduate, but they're at risk of withdrawing. And this work was really informed by one of our colleagues work, Zach Mable, who had found that in a study of students at open enrollment colleges in Ohio and Florida, one out of every three students who had completed 75% of the credits they needed to graduate left before earning their degree. So he revealed this really important finding that, that led to this opportunity to improve the low college completion rates across the U.S. by targeting specifically students who have made a substantial amount of progress towards their degree but are at risk of dropping out. And then to your question about what are some factors that may be keeping them from graduating, I would categorize them into four broad buckets. So first is there might be institutional constraints. So for example, advising systems might have limited capacity to serve students. So sometimes individual advisors might have upwards of 100 students within their own caseload. And so that can make it very difficult to, you know, even, even with the best of intentions to dedicate really personalized and intensive support for each of those students. Another is just complex processes. There might be really confusing requirements for students who are trying to transfer from a two year college to a four year university. Another example is there might be income verification requirements that students and families need to show in order to receive financial aid. Another example very specific to students might be core scheduling, could be a, is also another example of a complex process. Core scheduling could be difficult, if, for example, the students that they need to complete a program are offered only during certain semesters and not others, so that scheduling can get kind of tricky. Another category of barriers that I would name are social psychological ones. We all procrastinate. We have a tendency to prioritize, you know short term pleasures and things that we just want to do now over the longer term gains. Additionally, we have limited attention, we have limited bandwidth for just how much we can focus on one thing. And, and these types of barriers could really be exacerbated even more for those who are balancing multiple demands. So for example, students who go to school, and work and/or have family obligations.


Liz Bolsoni  12:10
And I'm thinking too, I mean, this is probably less quantifiable, but you know, it gets, you get to be a better student as you go through college, but it doesn't get easier. In fact, a lot of times, it just, it gets harder. And that's a fun challenge. But it's, it's so important that we finish and we just get through the hard stuff, because it's so rewarding. So can you talk a bit about those Nudge programs for these students that you were just probably speaking about, and how they are different from summer nudge programs?


Alice Choe  12:44
Yeah, and I think you touched upon that point perfectly just now. The factors that affect students' experiences change over time, from the moment they decide to apply to college, get into college, start college, and as they start reaching different milestones in that undergraduate career. So designing supports, like Nudging, that are really tailored to specific stages, and the barriers that they face within those stages, is really important. One, one important commonality that I actually want to draw attention to between Nudging for high school graduates going to college and also for Nudging for college students who are further along in their college careers, one commonality that I want to draw attention to is the chance for both types of students to connect with someone for help really easily. So typically, we might expect students to seek out resources like tutoring centers, or go to the financial aid office for support with filling out financial aid applications. But it can be really hard to find a time during student's busy schedules and days to you know, first figure out where on campus that office is, and then take time to actually walk over to that office and find someone who's able to help them with a specific thing that they need. And so the Nudging programs provide an alternative solution in the sense that, for example, if it's a text message based Nudging program, students can text into a phone line asking for help with their financial aid, or maybe they're struggling in one of their classes and are looking for tutoring resources. On the other end of that phone line, if there's a person who can respond, that's a that's a great connection that's been facilitated just by virtue of using this text messaging channel. I think as we think about the large gaps in socioeconomic status, however, it's also becoming increasingly clear that Nudges alone won't be sufficient to bridge that gap. So I think we have to think more carefully about how to use Nudges to help students receive more holistic supports for the many different types of challenges they face: academic, financial, psychological, especially now as we climb out of the pandemic, and also try to help them build, you know, longer term behavioral strategies that help them overcome those adversities, both while they're in school and as they transition to the workplace and so on.


Liz Bolsoni  15:20
Thank you so much. So Ben or Alice, do either of you have some last thoughts you want to share about the Nudge 4 Solutions Lab and your research?


Ben Castleman  15:28
Well, sure, I'm happy to talk a little bit about what we're, what we're working on, currently, especially, as I said, climbing out of the pandemic, obviously, we know there's lots of young people who are graduating from college during the pandemic, or going to graduate from college when we're still dealing with the pandemic effects. And of course, there's many people who are maybe a little further on in life, but who lost employment during the pandemic, and might need to find a new job or train for a different kind of job, because the type of work that they were doing hasn't recovered as much. And so one of the projects we're most excited about right now, is, as I mentioned, at the beginning, trying to use the same kind of data science strategies that companies like Netflix use to provide us with movie recommendations, but instead provide students who are about to graduate from college with really personalized information about jobs that are currently open in their communities, and that are a good match from their, for their academic record, and maybe even for their work experience. And so, you know, you could think about this as like, really trying to provide for students what a really high quality career advisor would, or just a really valuable professional network that that some students have the privilege of accessing by virtue of the families that they're born into. We want to test out a strategy that can provide all students all graduates, regardless of their family circumstances, with the same kind of really tailored information to find jobs that are a great fit for what they're interested in, what they've studied. So that's something we're working on actively now. And, of course, we'll be excited to share results and what we find in the months to come as that project progresses.


Liz Bolsoni  17:17
Thanks for sharing about that. And last question for the both of you. As you know, students today, and you both talked about are facing challenges that are very new, and including distance learning, including in our home community of Minnesota, multiple instances of police violence, and nationwide instances of violence against Asian Americans, as well as social and political unrest. And I'm just wondering, a lot of those issues impact students and people trying to get an education. And so what do you hope life after now looks like for students in Minnesota? And what can we look forward to?


Alice Choe  18:00
I would say two broad things. I think my hope is that, for life after now, for both students in Minnesota and just across the country, my hope would be that higher education institutions really take time to try to understand the specific challenges and psychological stressors that students, particularly those from more underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds, are facing in this pandemic, when trying to get into and through college, and to jobs that are financially and personally rewarding. And then using that knowledge about their students and what exactly their environment looks like, using that information to help inform the ways in which institutions choose to deploy their resources, their limited resources, to support their students and those challenges. I think there's a really exciting opportunity. As the research around college access and success grows, I think there's a great opportunity for institutions to continually draw from that evidence base, showing which strategies and which don't, and use more proactive outreach to students who, who need it, using really neat tools, like data science and behavioral insights, that really deeply understand who their students are, what their needs are coming out of the pandemic and address them head on.


Ben Castleman  19:30
You know, I think a lot of, a lot of our orientation is to what you know, students can do differently or students can look forward to pursue paths to success. And I am very hopeful that colleges look differently, society looks differently, and that in both cases, institutions are doing more to support students through these challenges. So that the the orientation shifts to what a students need to do and more towards, how do we address the kind of ways in which society has or hasn't made investments, the ways that institutions are structured that have made it very challenging for students to be successful, again, especially if they're from first generation college backgrounds, or, you know, they have less resources to draw on. And so one of the areas I'm most hopeful is that colleges and universities, states and local governments are getting a lot of financial resources from the federal government through the various forms of legislation that that have been passed over the last few months. And so I'm very hopeful that, starting hopefully as early as this summer or fall, that students experience a college environment that is much more active in providing support, providing outreach, addressing challenges and creating an environment where, where it's much easier for students to be successful. And I don't mean easier in the sense that classes aren't as hard. I mean that for all of the talented, hard working students who want to give their all in their classes and want to get the most out of campus, that colleges and universities are investing the resources that provide support and address the many obstacles that come up in students lives that can make it hard to focus on classes or hard to focus on what's going on on campus, so that students, students can really invest their time and energy where they want, which is getting the most out of their classes, getting the most out of their college experience. And then having really productive fulfilling careers and lives to follow.


Liz Bolsoni  21:49
Thank you both so much. I really appreciate your wise words and all of -- everything you had to say about your research. So I appreciate your time. It was wonderful speaking with you.


Ben Castleman  21:59
Thanks Liz. It was great talking with you, too.


Alice Choe  22:01
Thanks so much, Liz.


Liz Bolsoni  22:03
I just want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you again for spending some time with us today. This podcast is brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Please dig into the resources we mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes at our website Don't forget to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, everyone. I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future. 

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