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Text Me for Help

From the UK Blog: “Summer nudging” to improve college-going

July 8, 2015
Text Me for Help

In my carefree days before graduate school, I received an email with the subject line: “Action Required - Correct Tax Information on Your FAFSA.” I attempted to log into my account, forgot my PIN, and then willfully ignored my inbox for the summer. Thankfully, my postal mail was being forwarded to my father, a high school teacher accustomed to wrangling young adults. Almost daily he called me about the financial aid paperwork. Without those loans, he nagged, I would find myself back on the Subway sandwich assembly line, building footlong tuna melts.

Graduating high school seniors face a more insidious kind of melt during the summer before college, as Lindsay Page, Ed.M’04, Ed.D’11, and Benjamin Castleman, Ed.D.’13, have shown. Nationally, up to 20 percent of seniors intending to go to college never attend classes in the fall. Page and Castleman, longtime affiliates of the Center for Education Policy Research, describe the national trend of college-intending students dropping off before the school year starts as “summer melt.”  

Why do students who excel in high school falter on their way to a higher education? “There are a number of obstacles,” Castleman says. “We’ve seen everything from unexpected financial challenges to confusion over paperwork that leaves families feeling overwhelmed.”

The phenomenon is even more pronounced for lower-income and first-generation college-going students, who often lack the supports of their higher-income peers. “The rate of summer melt is more like 40 percent for students who intend to enroll in community college,” Page says.

Summer Nudging

It occurs to me now, years later, that my father wasn’t nagging me so much as nudging me.Borrowing the concept of “nudges” from behavioral economics — the idea that small changes can influence our willingness to make active and informed decisions — Castleman and Page conducted a randomized controlled trial to investigate whether a series of low-touch outreach strategies could prompt students to access support and complete pre-college tasks. 

In partnership with district and nonprofit collaborators, they were able to link students’ contact data with their intended college plans and stitch together personalized reminders. They sent text messages with college-specific information and links to students, and invited them to respond to counselors directly. The text messages cost just a few dollars per student but resulted in 10–15 percent increases in college matriculation. The largest effects were found among low-income and first-generation college-intending students.

They also examined a peer mentorship program that had positive impacts on students’ postsecondary enrollment. Near-aged college students reached out to graduating seniors to guide them through the enrollment process and prepare them for school in the fall.  

Both summer interventions involved proactive outreach to targeted students.  The students not assigned to receive outreach were still told that help was available if needed, but few students took advantage. Researchers learned individualized engagement is far more effective than simply offering services.

Simple Steps to Stop the Melt

It occurs to me now, years later, that my father wasn’t nagging me so much as nudging me. As parents and educators, we shouldn’t wait for large-scale technical solutions or mentoring programs; instead, the researchers suggest that we start with a few simple nudges.

  • Pick up a phone, and call or text a graduate. Ask: “how is your summer is going? Do you need help preparing for college?”
  • Be a connector. Even if you don’t know a lot about college or aid, you can connect students with online resources or individual support.
  • Volunteer at a local high school. Counselors can be overtaxed with disproportionate caseloads. Check in with your school district to see if you can organize a parent texting tree to support counselors in spring and summer outreach to graduating seniors.

A Summer Melt Toolkit

  • The Center for Education Policy Research’s free Summer Melt handbook includes tools for college-going students and counselors to keep students on track.

Additional Resources

  • In Summer Melt, Page and Castleman offer practical guidance for schools and districts committed to helping their students make the transition to college.
  • In The 160-Character Solution, Castleman discusses how behavioral strategies can improve education.

About the Author

Miriam Greenberg
Miriam Greenberg is a director at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. She writes about the ways in which education data reaches beyond the numbers and into our lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mirigreenberg and @HarvardCEPR.
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