College & Workforce Readiness

‘R U on Track for College?’ Texting a New Strategy

By Caralee J. Adams — May 13, 2014 9 min read
Octavia Smoot prepares for her senior portrait at Scott High School in Madison, W.Va. Ms. Smoot is participating in a pilot program that sends text reminders, including those featured at right, to college-bound students. Starting in January of the senior year, participants receive reminders and information to keep them on track for higher education.
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As educators look for ways to keep high school seniors on track for college and to avoid the “summer melt” that leads some astray in the months after they graduate, a new strategy is gaining ground: texting.

This year, West Virginia launched a pilot program that alerts students about deadlines for financial aid, registration, and student orientation, among other matters, with personalized messages on their mobile phones. The texting initiative targets students from low-income families—especially those set to become the first in their families to attend college.

It begins in January of students’ senior year and continues into the summer and even through the freshman year of college. After getting a text reminder, a student may contact a counselor at his or her high school or on campus for more personal, one-on-one assistance.

Minnesota is in the second year of a similar pilot. Also, nonprofit organizations in St. Louis and New York City are trying such texting programs for students who might not get much academic guidance at home.

“We wanted to connect students with college support staff earlier,” said Jessica A. Kennedy, the assistant director of communications at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. “When students transition from high school to college, they don’t have anyone to reach out to in the summer. They are scrambling to build new support systems and want more.”

When designing its program with 14 high schools and four colleges, West Virginia looked to the work of researchers Benjamin L. Castleman of the University of Virginia and Lindsay C. Page of the University of Pittsburgh. The two scholars have documented the effects of recent texting initiatives, finding the practice can increase matriculation by up to 11 percent in communities where students had little access to college advising or information. They also find it to be a very affordable intervention, costing about $7 per student.

The spate of texting initiatives responds to concerns that many students who are accepted to college never actually attend. Mr. Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, said that based on an analysis he and Ms. Page conducted of federal longitudinal data, about 10 percent to 15 percent of students nationwide who have been accepted to college fail to enroll in the year following high school. The attrition figure is far higher in urban districts serving large numbers of low-income families they examined, about 20 percent to 30 percent.

Navigating the Systems

The snags students run into over the summer after high school graduation often revolve around finances, as they learn about new expenses, such as books or mandatory fees, the researchers found. Others have difficulty navigating the systems for housing or placement tests, they note.

“There are a lot of tasks that need to be completed that are complex,” said Mr. Castleman. “Texting prompts students to think about these tasks rather than put them off. An added power of the messaging is as a vehicle to connect students with professional assistance.”

At the same time, Mr. Castleman and others involved with texting initiatives caution that this strategy should not be seen as a replacement for high school counselors and college support staff, but rather as another valuable tool.

Recently, the National Student Clearinghouse has begun providing new data that are likely to build greater demand for strategies—whether texting or other approaches—to help ensure that students who are accepted to college don’t slip through the cracks. For the past few years, it has given student-level reports to high schools that subscribe to its service, which show just how many of their graduates enroll in college, and where. It turns out that this figure doesn’t always square with what high schools think their college-going rates are, based on exit surveys from seniors.

“It’s providing a little bit of reality to the mix,” said Doug Shapiro, the executive research director for the clearinghouse, a Herndon, Va.-based research organization, which last fall published its first national benchmark report, which included data from 4,000 high schools and enabled individual schools to compare their college-enrollment rates to the national average.

“We knew that schools were using numbers that were most likely to be biased upwards, saying there were far more students likely to go to college than actually go,” he said. But the data now show more clearly the actual matriculation rates.

Jerry W. Pope, a college consultant for Niles North and Niles West high schools in Skokie, Ill., said the clearinghouse data showed that while the schools thought about 93 to 94 percent of their students were enrolling in college, the actual figures were closer to 81 and 84 percent respectively. This significant gap brought home the message that the high schools’ job is not done when students leave for college, he said.

“There is a big awareness on the part of high schools and colleges that this is an ongoing partnership,” said Mr. Pope. “For the transition from high school to college, we need to make sure no one drops the ball.”

The West Virginia initiative is supported by a three-year, $225,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to connect about 1,000 students who participate in federally funded Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, known as GEAR UP.

The West Virginia Higher Education Commission worked with high school counselors and higher education administrators to develop text messages that it sends out periodically to students over 18 months. In addition, colleges in the pilot text customized messages to their incoming students with specific deadlines and reminders once accepted.

Octavia E. Smoot, a senior at Scott High School in Madison, W.Va., who plans to study criminal justice at West Virginia State University next fall, said the texts have been helpful to her.

For instance, when more information was needed for her financial-aid application, she got a text urging her to complete it. After she did so, Ms. Smoot immediately texted back and got confirmation that it went through. The busy 18-year-old said communicating via text is best.

“I never put [my phone] down, unless I’m sleeping,” she said. “Teenagers would rather text than go in and talk to a counselor. Texting is the way we communicate.”

‘Quick and Easy’

Texting is quick and easy, said Samantha N. Fox, a student resource specialist at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. She has been sending messages to incoming students since January.

“It’s kind of overwhelming with all the paperwork. This helps them keep things in a timeline,” said Ms. Fox, who will text students about special events once they get on campus to help them get involved in the community.

Josie Lacek, a student program adviser at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, in Saulsville, said the most common questions she hears from students in the texting program concern financial aid.

“Others just have regular college jitters,” she said. “As a community college in a rural area, many [students] are first-generation college students and they need a little extra hand-holding.”

At open-enrollment institutions, students often wait to the last minute to register, so the texting is a good way to get them moving, said Darrell T. Taylor, the dean of student services and enrollment at Southern community college, who said he would like to make texting available to all incoming students eventually. However, as the “Mountain State,” West Virginia has problems with cell service, so it would be a supplement to other means of communication, he added.

The latest research by Mr. Castleman and Ms. Page, who have a book—Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College—coming out next fall from Harvard Education Press, included randomized trials in the summer of 2012. College-intending students from four urban school districts were sent texts reminding them of important tasks to complete over the summer, along with offers to meet with counselors to discuss finances. The districts involved serve Dallas, as well as Boston, Lawrence, Mass., and Springfield, Mass.

The messages had a positive impact on college enrollment in three of the four districts, Mr. Castleman said, particularly for low-income students without much access to college information. The intervention, however, had zero measurable effect in Boston, where there are already many school- and community-based college-planning supports.

Minnesota did a trial run of texting and emails last summer to students in a college-prep program called Get Ready, run by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Jennifer E. Fox, the communications assistant for the agency, introduced the program to 175 students at two high schools.

The “gentle reminder” messages began in May and continued until August, said Ms. Fox. This year it will expand to about 300 students.

Building a Relationship

Rebecca L. Schmitz, a counselor at Washington Technology Magnet School, in St. Paul, Minn., embraced the texting and found students were eager to share their contact information. The texts were strategically timed over the summer. As student responses came in, Ms. Schmitz would field questions individually.

“Honestly, I think some of them would have given up” if it weren’t for the summer messaging, she said.

St. Louis Graduates, a network of K-12 and higher education college-access organizations, opened a drop-in counseling center over the summer to answer questions as graduates transitioned to college. This coming summer, text messaging will be a new feature.

“The important part is building a relationship with [the students],” said Laura B. Winter, the project manager for St. Louis Graduates. “Text messaging is never going to replace one-one-conversations in counseling, but it can remind students of deadlines and prompt them to come in.”

The system that St. Louis graduates will have access to, Bridgit (a reference to the bridge from high school to college), was developed by CollegeBound, a St. Louis-based nonprofit. A pilot launched in April involves seven high schools working with 4,000 students. It will be evaluated in a randomized trial with the help of Mr. Castleman and Ms. Page. With Bridgit, students fill out a form online about their college path and issues to address, so the text messages can be personalized.

“Texting done poorly can be something that becomes a distraction,” said Lisa O. Zarin, the president and CEO of College Bound. “Students shared that if texting is random and like a robo-message, they would ignore it.” If messages are relevant, personalized, actionable, and contain links, they can eliminate procrastination and be helpful, she said. Even with low-income students, cell phones are ubiquitous.

“They would go without food before they would go without a phone,” she said.

A Mind Shift

Last summer, iMentor, a New York City nonprofit, sent weekly, customized texts to about 500 recent high school students and their mentors about steps to complete before enrolling that fall. This summer the program will begin sooner, in May, and may extend past August, said Daniel S. Voloch, the managing director of program design at iMentor, which serves students from schools that receive federal Title I aid.

Mr. Voloch said colleges often take a hard-line approach that students are adults and need to figure out the transition on their own, but he thinks colleges would be smart to embrace texting.

“There is a mind shift needed as students graduate from high school,” he said. “All those supports that led up to graduation, [they] all disappear at exactly the moment they begin to make high-stakes decisions. Texting serves as a safety net.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Texting Is Used To Keep Students On College Track


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