Curbing Adult Student Attrition: Evidence from a Field Experiment

This field experiment looks at the effectiveness of sending text messages to reduce adult student attrition. 

Raj Chande
Michael Sanders
Oana Borcan
Elizabeth Linos
Sean Robinson
Michael Luca
Xian-Zhi Soon
Netta Barak-Corren
Elspeth Kirkman
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Harvard Business School
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This paper presents evidence from a large‐scale field experiment designed to improve attendance rates by texting motivational messages and organizational reminders to students, with messages drawing on insights from behavioral economics. The intervention has a large effect on attendance rates, and this effect persists for the remainder of our sample period (three consecutive weeks of messaging). To implement this experiment, we partnered with two further education colleges in England, consisting of 1179 adult learners. Both schools offer fully subsidized numeracy and literacy courses for adult learners. 

The hypothesis, based on the theory that psychological barriers contribute to low attendence and course persistence by school dropouts in basic literacy and numeracy classes, was that text messages sent to a random stratified sample of participants in a treatment group would positively affect attendance and course completion. The intervention text messages were also based on behavioral economics theory: 1) They were sent at a time when the student was likely to be home (Sunday evening), shifting their attention to their upcoming class; 2) They encouraged students to engage with their classmates on facebook, to increase a sense of belonging, and 3) They provided encouraging messages such as "Keep up the hard work."

The initial results show that these simple text messages reduce the proportion of students that stop attending by 36% and lead to a 7% increase in average attendance relative to the control group. The effects on attendance rates persist through the three weeks of available data following the initial intervention.


What the experts say

If the promising results of this study can be replicated among adult education programs, retention, which is a common challege in the field, should increase significantly without spending a lot of time and money to implement.

This inexpensive experiment (estimated at $5 per student) to improve attendance and basic skills course completion for adult school dropouts shows some impressive positive results. It would not be difficult to replicate this, and it would be possible to do that relatively inexpensively. Also, program managers of adult basic skills programs where a large majority of students have cell phones with text messaging might find it worthwhile to try text messaging students, in the way it was done in this experiment, to see if this positively affects student atttendance and persistence.

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