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A few text messages can help students go to college

Texting is one way to close a "nagging gap" between low-income students and wealthier peers.
Texting is one way to close a "nagging gap" between low-income students and wealthier peers.
Mike Honda/AFP via Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Each year, students who seem like they should be going to college — their transcripts look college-ready, they've applied and been accepted and even applied for financial aid — don't show up for class in the fall. In some communities, the attrition rate over the summer can be as  high as 40 percent; nationally, it's estimated to be between 10 and 20 percent.

What happens to these recent high school graduates that stops them from going to college, and how can colleges and counselors keep them on track? Benjamin Castleman, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, has studied the phenomenon, which is known as summer melt. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Libby Nelson: Let's start with an explanation of what "summer melt" is. The idea most people have about students heading off to college is they're very excited about it. But you find that for some students it's a much more ambiguous situation and some get into college and don't go at all.

Benjamin Castleman: Our work started about seven years ago, when I was a school administrator in Providence, Rhode Island. We did a longitudinal study of our district graduates. We were expecting to follow students and see how they did in college and what life was like. These were kids who had gotten into college, had applied for financial aid, paid deposits, or even gotten deposit fee waivers. And a third of the students reconsidered where — or even whether — to go to college in the months after high school.

These are students who've done everything they're supposed to. They've applied and gotten into college, they've applied for financial aid, they've chosen where to go, and they've graduated high school. We use "summer melt" to describe what happens when they don't go to college.

LN: As you say, these are students who have done everything right. They've crossed a lot of hurdles to get to this point. Why do things fall apart so close to the finish line?

BC: Students encounter financial and procedural obstacles that they didn't anticipate, and they lack access to professional help or support to deal with them. They're no longer part of their high school, so they can't go to their school counselors any more. When obstacles arise, they don't know where to turn to for help.

A fairly substantial number of students haven't even gotten their financial aid award letters by the time summer starts. [These letters usually arrive in late spring, and not receiving them means that students might need to provide additional information to the US Education Department.] But if they're the first in their family to go to college, they don't know that's necessarily a problem. They're not familiar with what the key timelines are in the college-going process.

So they miss registering for orientation or filling out housing forms. If you don't go to orientation, depending on the college, you can't sign up for courses or you can't take placement tests. You may miss on-campus housing, and students who've gotten into a college outside their hometown don't know where to live. Or even when students get their award letters they're confused by what's a grant versus what's a loan, and when they get their tuition bills in mid-July, the bottom line is much different than they were expecting.

LN: Does this happen more to certain types of students, or students at certain types of colleges?

BC: Overall melt rates tend to be most pronounced among students from low-income backgrounds, students who live in communities where there are not a lot of college planning supports or information available.

One reaction we often get is, if students can't do these orientation forms, if they can't figure out a financial aid award letter, should they be going to college? Yes. These are students who have already succeeded academically to get into four-year institutions and graduate high school.

Figuring out the financing of college and these bureaucratic procedures are things that students across the socioeconomic spectrum find new and unfamiliar and challenging. Students from more affluent backgrounds have parents they can turn to for help, or who are very involved in knowing what needs to get done and pestering students who haven't done it. What distinguishes the lower-income students is not a lack of tenacity or ability or readiness for college, but unfamiliarity with complicated financial and procedural issues.

LN: It seems like so much of what we talk about when we talk about difficulties that highly qualified low-income students face accessing college is an information gap or even just a nagging gap. They don't know what they need to do and people aren't telling them to do it. What sorts of interventions have you studied that could address these issues?

BC: We find a lot of promise in the combination of leveraging technology to get students personalized and simplified information about college and financial aid, and individualized, high-quality college advising.

We find that student emails often go unread, envelopes sent home go unopened, and on social media, every bit of information that's out there is competing with the flood of information that's also on the student's Facebook feed. But every text message, at least for a moment in time, stands out as its own content.

Using data that we have on students from school districts or from colleges, we can make the messages highly personalized. We can pretty easily identify the deadline for when that student has to register for orientation and configure a message to include a web link.

That simplifies the information and allows the student to complete the task in the moment. And in all of our messages we try to actively invite students to write back if they need help.

LN: It seems like it's not just the message that's important, but the medium. Why texting?

BC: I think of texting as kind of like a behavioral multivitamin — one little pill of 160 characters that can operate through a lot of channels.

One thing texts do is take really complicated information and consolidate that into timely bursts. Now a student doesn't need at the start of summer to read through whatever package a college has sent.

Another effect may just be from prompting students to deal with something in the moment. By configuring the messages to include web links to bring students directly to the orientation page, we can really reduce hassles that students face.

And a big part of it is this idea that getting help is as simple as replying to a text message. It doesn't require the student to pick up the phone or go to the school. For a lot of adolescents that may be a big hurdle. Writing back to a text message saying "Yeah, I do need help with financial aid" is quite a bit easier.

LN: Will this evolve as the way that students communicate evolves?

BC: One of the great things about some of the text messaging work we and others have done, but also one of the risks of the work we've done, is it's drawn attention to messaging as an effective medium of relaying personalized information. So you're going to see a pretty rapid uptick in college and community-based organizations that are turning to texts. Texting might become saturated in the way that email has become saturated.

In my own work, I'm always attentive to how we can stay at the frontier. I joke with my wife all the time that the next frontier we're going to tackle is some kind of Snapchat intervention.

LN: You should consider Yo. Why haven't colleges done more of this outreach? After all, they have money on the line if students don't show up after they've already accepted an offer of admission.

BC: There are lot of great tools, but a lot of them are built with an "if we build it they will come" mentality. Our work has illustrated the importance of being very proactive and personalized and making it easy for them to connect to help. I think colleges are receptive to these strategies. They want to learn how to engage underrepresented students better. I don't think it's for lack of trying, it's just maybe for lack of having had as much a sense of how to effectively engage this population.

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