The Times West Virginian

January 30, 2014

Texting program great way to reach students at critical time in education

Times West Virginian

— HYH? There’s a GR8 new program that helps students IRL as they prepare for college.

If you’re having trouble deciphering that sentence, it’s probably because you haven’t grown up in an age when text messaging on cellphones is the primary form of communication. (And for those still scratching their heads, the first line reads: “Have you heard? There’s a great new program that helps students in real life as they prepare for college.”)

It also probably means you aren’t the target audience for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s pilot project that will help high school seniors prepare for college and begin their freshman year of higher education.

The text message support project, which has not yet been officially named, has two main goals: to remind students of deadlines and important steps in the college application process, and to provide them with support and answers to any questions they have along the way. The project is a twist on traditional methods used to help students plan and prepare to move on to higher education.

We think it’s a brilliant way of keeping students engaged as they navigate what can be some of the busiest months of their school careers.

As Jessica Kennedy, assistant director of communications with the West Virginia HEPC, explained, the agency wants to make sure it provides as many resources and opportunities to students to pursue education as it can, “and part of that means making an effort to be available when they need us.”

“We provide that sort of support through what have become traditional channels like email and hotlines,” Kennedy said, “but we know students utilize text messaging as a primary mean to communicate. We want to offer that avenue as well.”

The process is simple. Students sign up for the service by checking an opt-in box on college applications, their PROMISE scholarship applications or through the College Foundation of West Virginia Web portal. They provide basic information — their name, cellphone number and name of their high school — and begin receiving texts reminding them of important events surrounding the college-preparation process. They then receive messages regarding subjects including SAT/ACT registration deadlines, information about their Free Application for Federal Student Aid and notifications of upcoming college planning workshops.

The texts are personalized to each student based on the information provided when signing up for the program. The best part? Students can text back and ask questions, which will be answered in almost real time.

Currently, the program is limited to 12th-graders attending one of the 14 high schools participating in the West Virginia GEAR UP program, and the program partnered with Bluefield State College, Concord University, Marshall University and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College to send each school’s incoming freshmen campus-level resources via text message that will help them find academic and social support once they arrive at school.

“We know that mobile devices are quite popular, and in areas where students night not have a computer at home they may still have a cellphone,” said Jessica Tice, senior director of communications at the HEPC. “Our hope is that this will open doors for more students to feel like they have the adequate information they need not only to step foot on that campus, but that we continue that support throughout that critical first year of college.”

The program has received plenty of praise, and plans to expand it are already in the works. In fact, there’s a goal of adding 1,000 students from the 14 participating high schools every year of the pilot period and to add at least one more college partner this year with the hopes of increasing college enrollment among the schools and also the return rate after students’ first year of college.

In this digital age when most students seem permanently attached to their cellphones anyway, projects like the HEPC’s make sense. We hope that as the program expands, leaders in North Central West Virginia will use it as a way to reach students at such a crucial time in their education.