‘Nudging’: Is a Text Messaging Campaign Right for Your Program?

August 28, 2018

By Danielle Lowry, Graduate Fellow


A popularly discussed strategy in higher education policy circles to increase college access and success is the implementation of a text messaging program. Higher education institutions and college access organizations across the country have been experimenting with personalized text messages – nudges – to increase FAFSA filing, college enrollment, and persistence among at-risk student populations.

But for organizations thinking about adopting text messaging into their programming, many questions remain: What texting platform is best? How much does it cost? What types of organizations stand to benefit most?

A roundup of the research on text message nudging and its effect on college access outcomes can be found in the table below (click the image to see the full table). Most of the research finds modest positive effects on the completion of pre-matriculation tasks, FAFSA submission, and college enrollment.

Organizations serving a small number of students or students with easy access to college counselors may not find texting to be a useful strategy. The largest effects of text message nudging occur when students have less immediate access to college transition resources or college counselors. Nudging studies show that low-income students and first-generation students, who presumably do not have family or friends with college access knowledge, benefit the most from these text message programs (Page & Gehlbach, 2017; Castleman & Meyer, 2016; Castleman & Page, 2016). Additionally, students most at risk of dropping out of college are more likely to engage with personalized text messages that provide specific information pertaining to them and the college they plan to attend, as opposed to more generic messages (Mabel, Castleman & Bettinger, 2017).

Although the per-student cost of text messaging can be cheaper than other student outreach initiatives (ranging from $0.80 per student to $36 per student), there are many time-consuming tasks that must be completed both before and during a text messaging campaign.

A first-order consideration is identifying the purpose and the desired outcomes of a text message campaign. Much of the research on text message nudging recommends conducting focus groups with program staff and students served to determine what content would be most beneficial for students. In one text message study, students said that reminders of financial aid and university deadlines as well as where to find campus resources were the most helpful. Texts focusing on goal setting and check-ins were seen as less helpful (Cannon, 2016).

A second consideration is determining the desired amount of student and staff engagement. In one nudging experiment, texts were most effective for students when colleges were involved in the initiative and customized texts with college-specific deadlines and information about where to find campus resources (Castleman & Meyer, 2016).

Organizations must decide whether to engage with students after sending out a text and who will do so. Many text messaging platforms have two-way texting capabilities that allow for a more personalized experience. Students can respond to texts with questions and receive one-on-one assistance.

More engagement can mean more work for staff. However, if program staff are already doing this work in person, by phone, or by email, it may be more efficient to implement texting, especially if texting is integrated into the student database system. In fact, uAspire found that they could serve a third more students when using texts instead of prior communication methods. If a texting program incorporates mostly automated texts, the organization may be able to save time and effort.

Finally, organizations using text messages must to consider how to evaluate the effectiveness of their program. Staff members should discuss how to legally collect student phone numbers and ask for permission to enroll the student in the text messaging program. Many texting platforms have dashboards visualizing data on student engagement, which makes program evaluation easier. However, staff must also collect data on student outcomes to determine whether the text messaging campaign is a cost-effective strategy to reach students.

If your organization is interested in using text messaging to combat summer melt, you may be interested in learning about NCAN’s Summer Melt Texting Campaign. This program, a collaboration with Signal Vine, is useful for smaller organizations that may worry about the costs of entering into a contract with a texting platform on their own. College access organizations can also use this opportunity to test whether a texting program is an effective strategy to serve their students.

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