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Text Messaging Can Help 200,000 More Students Enroll in College

Published on February 3, 2017

Book and coffee mugs on a wooden table, with hands texting above them

In our Mass Text Messaging for Schools industry guide, we wrote about how schools can use SMS to send reminder texts, emergency alerts, and more to keep students engaged and in-the-know. A related story appeared in The New York Times in a Jan. 6 op-ed, “Text Your Way to College,” showing how text messaging can have a significant impact on college enrollment among low-income students.

In a 2013 study, which we discuss below, Benjamin Castleman (University of Virginia) and Lindsay Page (University of Pittsburgh) found that texting increased college enrollment by 7%. We wanted to translate that figure into a head count, so we used the latest National Center for Education Statistics data on enrollment rates among recent high school graduates to calculate what the nationwide impact might be.

Based on figures for 2014, a 7% increase means you’d be looking at a little over 200,000 additional students enrolling in college.

Text messaging may be simple, but it sure packs a punch!

When less information leads to missed opportunities

Let’s return to the low-income issue for a minute. Because they often lack college-entry information and access to counselors, many smart, talented high school seniors from low-income families don’t realize they could qualify for generous financial aid packages at top-tier universities. Worried by high costs, they apply to and enroll at cheaper community colleges or less-competitive universities.

That’s an unfortunate outcome, but it’s still better than a related trend in which high school graduates get accepted to college, yet never matriculate. According to the Times, more than 200,000 high school students, “as many as 40 percent in some urban districts,” fall into this category. There’s even a name for this scenario—summer melt.

Slowing summer melt with text messaging

Hi, Alex! Have you chosen your courses yet? Deadline is 8/15. Need to register? www.tinyurl.com/courses. Need help? Text back to talk w/ an adviser.

In their study, Castleman and Page researched the impact of peer mentorship and text messaging on college entry among low-income students, concluding that a few text messages can go a long way in helping students navigate the college-entry process

For the SMS intervention, they created “a series of ten automated text messages to remind students and (where possible) their parents of tasks required by their intended college and to prompt recipients to request help with these tasks, if needed.” Thousands of students in the Dallas and Boston areas were randomly assigned to either a text outreach group or a control group with no outreach.

The result:

70 percent of students who received [reminder and informational] texts enrolled in college, compared with 63 percent of students who were not texted—a significant impact.

It’s a low-cost nudge

Castleman and Page followed up on their research by publishing Summer Melt, which explores strategies for guiding low-income high school graduates in the transition to college. Castleman later authored The 160-Character Solution, which focuses on text messaging as one such strategy. Both works use insights from behavioral economics to show that simply offering little “nudges”—like text messages, peer mentoring, and counselor outreach—can result in much better student performance and decision-making.

That observation doesn’t just apply to students from low-income families. And it’s relevant to students of all ages, from preschool all the way through college.

Those little nudges don’t cost much, either. For example, the text message outreach campaign described above cost less than $10 per student!

Here are a few other ways text messaging has been involved in helping students get the most out of their education:

  • Columbia University professor Peter Bergman published a study in which sending regular information (via SMS, emails, and phone calls) to parents of middle and high school students in Los Angeles led to a 25% increase in homework completion. This in turn led to better test scores and GPAs
  • Some states have implemented large-scale SMS programs to simplify college. For example, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission offers an SMS service to help first-time college students make the jump. Reminder messages, access to counselors, and other resources are available throughout their first year
  • Up Next, created as part of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, is a free tool that bills itself as a “college-support genie in your pocket” and uses text messaging to help students through the college process from start to finish. The tool—available to high school and college students, college grads, parents, and counselors—has significantly increased FAFSA completion, college enrollment, and sophomore persistence
  • A Stanford study evaluated READY4K!, a text messaging platform for parents of preschoolers, and found that its use increased parents’ home literacy engagement and school participation, which translated to increased preschooler literacy development

We think it’s pretty neat to see text messaging lead to positive outcomes like this. Do you have any examples of how schools have used SMS or text marketing to connect with students and improve their educational experience? Drop us a line and let us know!


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