How Leaders in Higher Education Can Embed Behavioral Science in Their Institutions

Essay by Ross E. O’Hara: “…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.

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…(More)”