Undergraduate student role models: Reinforcing the higher education message?

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Michael Kerrigan
Grace Harvey


widening participation, outreach, nudges, higher education, role models


This study draws upon previous research to establish if ‘low cost, high volume’ university outreach interventions change subsequent application behavour. The results of two distinct but related randomised controlled trials with two-armed designs (RCT 1, n=2,199; RCT 2, n=1,166) compared application outcomes between recipients and non-recipients of messages from existing undergraduates. The research sought to determine if student role model messaging reinforced prior exposure to the University outreach programme and thereby influenced recipient behavour, in terms of applications and acceptances to that specific institution.

The first trial found moderate statistical evidence that sending an email, written by and addressed from an existing undergraduate, to prospective applicants resulted in the opposite of the intended effect; reducing the rate of applications to the University. The second trial found no statistical evidence of any difference in application or acceptance rates amongst the treatment cohort, who received a personal letter in the post from two current undergraduate students, in comparison to the control group who received no correspondence. This reinforces the notion that there is no ‘one size fits all’ programme of widening participation interventions; successful ‘messaging’ is not necessarily transferrable, and can even backfire, given different characteristics of activity providers and recipient cohorts.