Science Summary

Dana Humphrey / July 10, 2018

A recap of research worth noting.

New Study Looks at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Using Text-Based Conversational Agent
New Study Looks at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Using Text-Based Conversational Agent
Researchers are exploring how artificial intelligence can be used to help treat depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Web-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) apps have been shown to be effective but are typically characterized by poor adherence. A recent study examined the feasibility, acceptability, and efficacy of an automated conversational agent, a text-based chatbot, to deliver a self-help program for college students with symptoms of anxiety and depression. For the study, participants aged 18-28 years received 2 weeks of self-help content derived from CBT principles from Woebot, a text-based conversational agent. Participants in the control group were directed to the National Institute of Mental Health ebook, “Depression in College Students.” Analysis showed that, when comparing both groups, regardless of whether they engaged with the content (an intent-to-treat analysis), the group using Woebot significantly reduced their symptoms of depression over the study while those in the information control group did not. In an analysis of only completers, participants in both groups reported significantly reduced anxiety symptoms. This indicates that while both the chatbot and the mental health ebook can be effective tools for treating mental health symptoms, the text chatbot was an engaging way to deliver CBT. Additionally, study participants’ comments suggested that process factors were more influential than content factors for their acceptability of the program. The study determined that automated conversational agents like Woebot are a feasible, engaging, and effective way to deliver CBT.

Racial Disparity in Completion Rates
Several recent reports have highlighted disparities in college degree attainment for various groups: black and Latino students, first generation students, and single mothers. Two new reports released by the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, identify states that have the biggest disparities in degree-attainment between white, black and Latino adults. The two reports, one for black adults and one for Latino adults, grade states on an A-to-F scale on both their current degree-attainment levels and on how that level has changed since 2000. The report also rates states on how they’ve closed the gap between white and black or Latino attainment since 2000. The report on black adults notes that the six states with extreme inequality in degree attainment are, in order from most unequal, Connecticut, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and New York. The six states with extreme gaps in attainment for Latino adults are led by California, followed by Colorado, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Illinois.

A new white paper from EAB Research, “Reframing the Question of Equity,” demonstrated that despite huge investments, degree attainment disparities between white and Hispanic students has remained unchanged and the gap between white and black students has grown slightly. And low-income, first-generation students are nearly four times more likely than their peers to drop out after their first year. Part of the problem, according to this study, is that minority and first-generation students are more likely to attend college part time, but student-success efforts usually focus on full-time students. The report recommends that community colleges wishing to shrink achievement gaps between white and minority students focus attention on the nearly two-thirds of their students who attend part time.

According to another recent report, a briefing paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, just 28 percent of single mothers graduate with a degree or certificate within 6 years of enrollment, and 55 percent leave school before earning a credential. The report states that single mothers in college face substantial time demands that make persistence and graduation difficult. The combination of raising a family, going to class, completing coursework, and holding a job can place serious constraints on single mothers’ time that can force them to make hard choices about their pursuit of higher education. The report authors recommend expanded supports for single mothers that would allow more women to complete college degrees.

Survey Tracks Students’ Reactions to the 2016 Election
According to a new study published in Psychological Reports, university students experienced a significant increase in anger, fear, marginalization, and stress after the 2016 election. The participants also reported an upsurge of discrimination. 85 undergraduate students took a daily survey regarding their mood, stress, and mental health before and after the 2016 election. Students reported signs of negative emotions (anxiety, anger, fear) and other aspects of worsening psychological health (stress, poor sleep quality, marginalization, experiencing discrimination) on the day following the election. The study found that while some of these reactions lasted for a day, others — anger, fear, marginalization and experiencing discrimination — evidenced a significant upsurge without a resultant recovery. Michael J. Roche of Penn State Altoona, the author of the study said, “These results apply to the 2016 presidential election, but it is possible that one would find these same results for any presidential election. Future research is needed to see if these reactions were typical or unique to the 2016 presidential election.”

New Study Finds Minority-Serving Institutions as Engines of Upward Mobility
A study by the American Council on Education examined the upward income mobility of students who attended minority-serving institutions, compared to students who did not. By using federal data, the authors found that minority-serving institutions propel their students from the bottom to the top of the income distribution at higher rates than other institutions. The study also found that minority-serving institutions often enroll students with the lowest family incomes, including first-generation students. These findings suggest that minority serving institutions play an integral role in the education of students from low-income families and communities of color where educational attainment is disproportionately low and income mobility is stagnant. These institutions play this role even while the majority of them have fewer financial resources than other colleges and universities.

Study Provides Insight on Repeat Users of Campus Mental Health Services
A new study published in the Journal of American College Health identifies the characteristics of college students who have previously received mental health services on campus and are willing to seek help again. Using data from the National College Health Assessment, the paper examines the characteristics of 12,501 undergraduates who had previously used mental health services on their current campus. Among students who had already utilized campus mental health services, students that were more likely to seek help again in the future were female, white, gay/lesbian, students not working for pay, students that have the college health insurance plan, and students with no military service. These findings provide insight about how to reach out to students in need of continued support.