Study: Text-Based FAFSA Campaigns are Effective, Proactive, and Low-Cost

November 4, 2016

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern

A recently released study on a texting campaign for increasing FAFSA completion shows that text-based outreach has positive and economically meaningful impacts on timely FAFSA completion. The authors of the study, Lindsay Page of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education and Benjamin Castleman and Katharine Meyer of the University of Virginia, designed a texting system that utilized regularly-updated data on the status of students’ FAFSA submissions to provide students with personalized outreach and updates on their FAFSA completion status. The results of the quasi-experimental study showed that texting initiatives increased FAFSA completion rates and prompted students to file the FAFSA earlier. 

The texting campaigns took place across Delaware and within eight school districts in Austin and Houston, Texas. The approaches within each campaign were slightly different, yet both evidenced that text-based outreach serves to improve FAFSA filing outcomes. In Delaware, overall FAFSA completion rates improved as a result of the initiative. In Texas, completion rates improved modestly (likely due to a four-month shorter running time, compared to Delaware). The timeliness of FAFSA completion for Texas participants, however, improved substantially — which may have resulted in larger financial aid awards for low-income students.

Authors suggest that Pell Grant recipients with an EFC (estimated family contribution) of less than $500 may receive over $600 more for completing their FAFSA before Feb. 1, compared to students who complete their applications after April 1. Similarly, early FAFSA completion can mean up to $3,000 more in institutional aid for the lowest-income students. 

Read on for details on both initiatives.

Delaware

In Delaware’s high-participation schools, the texting campaign increased FAFSA submission and completion by 8 and 7 percentage points, respectively, by the end of June. The statewide initiative served approximately 45 percent of Delaware’s Class of 2015 (students were recruited and enrolled in the texting campaign via a College Application Week survey). 

Every two weeks or so, students received messages regarding financial aid, FAFSA filing, selecting a college or university, and summer college-transition tasks. The texts were managed, sent and received by a team of volunteer graduate students at the University of Delaware. The ostensible sender of the messages, however, was a Delaware Department of Education staff member who “signed” most of the messages. 

Throughout the campaign, which ran from mid-January to the end of August 2015, roughly 28 text messages were sent to each student. The typical student texted back with questions three times. 

Texas

Texas saw substantial improvements in FAFSA completion earlier during the school year, which authors believe led to a 4-percentage point increase (about 400 students) in four-year college enrollment.

The researchers built on a contract that some of the districts already had in place with One Logos Education Solutions, a data management and communications platform. This program automatically pulled data form the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and Apply Texas Counselor Suite Portal, which lets high school counselors see whether students have completed the FAFSA, to send students updated messages regarding the status of their FAFSA application. The program had permission to text students regarding the college-going process and to access their cell phone numbers because of One Logos’ access to Apply Texas. 

From January 2015 to April 2015, about 8,500 high school seniors received messages approximately weekly from the ostensible sender, the school counselor, related to applying for college financial aid. Some messages were general, while others customized content according to students’ actual status in the FAFSA filing process: not started; initiated, but not complete; complete, with possibility of income verification; and income verification. In addition to linking to Federal Student Aid resources (such as videos and digestible information), each message prompted students to respond via text to ask questions, attend a local FAFSA completion event, or seek additional one-on-one help. 

Text-based outreach is efficient, proactive, and has a low implementation cost. Authors estimate that the cost of the texting initiative in Texas was about $8 per student. During an NCAN webinar Nov. 16 at 3 p.m. ET, co-author Lindsay Page will discuss this research and its implications for improved rates of college enrollment. Register online to reserve your seat.

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