The Times West Virginian

January 26, 2014

Personal text messages offer support as students face higher education

By Chelsi Baker
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission recently launched a three-year 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 provide that sort of support through what have become traditional channels like email and hotlines,” said Jessica Kennedy, assistant director of communications with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, “but we know students utilize text messaging as a primary mean to communicate. We want to offer that avenue as well.”



Getting started

The HEPC started developing the project, which is funded by the Kresge Foundation out of Troy, Mi., in the fall of 2013 and sent its first text message to students Jan. 2.

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 (CFWV) 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 they provide when signing up for the program.

Students can also text back and ask questions, which will be answered in almost real time.

“As a state higher education agency, it really is one of our goals to make sure that we provide as many resources and opportunities to students to pursue education as we can,” said Kennedy, “and part of that means making an effort to be available when they need us.”

Currently, Kennedy and other staff at CFWV respond to messages since the program is limited to students in only 14 schools throughout the state.

“The volume is low enough that it doesn’t take too much time,” she said. “We usually get about 200 messages back after any given message — at least that’s been the case so far since we’ve only sent out two messages. A lot of those we can answer very quickly since a lot of our staff is well versed in the college-planning process and in financial-aid information.”

As the program expands, guidance counselors will be able to log in to a secure server containing student texts from their respective school and answer questions.

Schools on board

Currently, the text message support program is limited to any 12th-grader attending high schools participating in the West Virginia GEAR UP program.

West Virginia Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, known as West Virginia GEAR UP, is a six-year, federally funded program designed to help students in 10 counties plan, apply and pay for higher education. It benefits students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend schools that may not have college preparation resources onsite.

Clay County, Lincoln County, Mingo Central, Mount View, River View, Roane County, Scott, Sherman, Summers County, Tug Valley, Webster County, Westside, Wirt County and Wyoming County East High Schools all participate in West Virginia GEAR UP.

“The reason we chose the GEAR UP schools is we already had an infrastructure there to be able to reach out to students and educators and to be able to evaluate how well the initial phase is going,” Kennedy explained.

“It was a really great starting point for us because we’ve been working to help those school systems build a college-going culture, so it was a natural fit in selecting them to participate in the pilot initiative.”

About 57 percent of seniors — 950 students — in the 14 participating high schools registered to receive texts.

So far, the service has sent two messages: an introduction and a reminder of the upcoming ACT registration deadline.

“Almost immediately one student responded, ‘OMG I completely forgot to register. Thank you so much. Just did it. It’s done!’” Kennedy said.

Friendly reminders like this help students take action steps at home without feeling overwhelmed, which is a process called “nudging.” Nudges throughout the spring of students’ senior year can give them the extra motivation they need to achieve their goals, Kennedy said.

“Whenever we look at a lot of research in terms of behavioral economics, we know that students who have every intention to pursue some sort of higher education sometimes get caught up in the multiple-action steps required to make that happen,” she said.

“That happens to the best of us even as adults, whether it’s planning for retirement or taking care of our health care. We know the things we should be doing, but whenever it comes to actually making it happen, it can be a little difficult.”

CFWV will send several more friendly messages guiding students through the college application process before they graduate, but the texts won’t stop after they receive their high school diploma.

“We’re really trying, knowing these students are in the spring semester of their senior year of high school, to make these messages as timely as possible and to walk them through the steps they need to take to be successful,” Kennedy said.

“We’ll actually continue to message them through the end of their freshman year of college, so it’s not just a college-access initiative. It’s also a college-completion initiative.”

Texts will guide graduates as they register for classes, send in housing and other paperwork, pay for tuition and complete other important college-related tasks.

Students will receive messages in March and again in April asking them to reply with the college they’ve chosen to attend in the fall.



Program’s partners

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.

Texts will also remind them of important deadlines, orientation schedules and other reminders to keep students on track.

If students don’t go to one of those four schools, they can still receive texts of statewide importance and basic college planning support that pertains to any college student attending any higher education institution after graduating high school.

As the program progresses, Kennedy plans to give representatives from each college a way to log in to the server to be able to answer questions as well. Each school will have a specific number to which students can ask questions instead of having to call several different offices to get answers.

The Higher Education Policy Commission hopes to see higher college enrollment rates and more successful college freshmen as a result of the text messaging service, and officials believe it will get the job done.

“It’s something we think will work based on the initial research,” Kennedy said. “We didn’t come up with it completely on our own, but we’re trying to build on prior research and provide the same services here.”

The HEPC was inspired by Ben Castleman, a researcher from the University of Virginia who conducted a study in which he sent texts to students in urban areas of the country during the summer after their senior year of high school and saw an increase in enrollment.

The text message support program builds on his project, however, by offering support throughout the students’ first year of school and allowing them to respond with questions.

So far, the response has been highly positive.

“We’ve had really enthusiastic messages back saying it’s great and thanking us, and we’ve had students asking to be a part of it who don’t go to the 14 schools involved,” Kennedy said. “Ultimately, we want to be able to offer the service statewide, but we’re still working out the technical details.”



Expansion planned

Plans to expand the service after its three-year pilot period are already in the works.

Representatives presented the project at an event at the White House on Jan. 16, hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, focused on expanding college opportunity for low-income students.

CFWV pledged to add an additional 1,000 students from the 14 participating high schools every year of the pilot period and also 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.

The project and its planned expansions drew praise and interest as an innovative way to help students reach their higher education goals.

“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 West Virginia HEPC. “Our goal is to make this personalized communication where they know that if they reach back out to us, they will get a response. They aren’t just getting a text message from someone that is far removed. We really want them to feel comfortable responding to this outreach.

“Our hope is that this will open doors for more students to feel like they have the adequate information they need to not only to step foot on that campus, but that we continue that support throughout that critical first year of college.”

Email Chelsi Baker at cbaker@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @CBakerTWV.