Why Aren’t Text Message Interventions Designed to Boost College Success Working at Scale?

I like to think of it as my Mark Zuckerberg moment: I was a graduate student and it was a sweltering summer evening in Cambridge. Text messages were slated to go out to recent high school graduates in Massachusetts and Texas. Knowing that thousands of phones would soon start chirping and vibrating with information about college, I refreshed my screen every 30 seconds, waiting to see engagement statistics on how students would respond. Within a few minutes there were dozens of new responses from students wanting to connect with an advisor to discuss their college plans.

We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of that first text-based advising campaign to reduce summer melt—when students have been accepted to and plan to attend college upon graduating high school, but do not start college in the fall. The now-ubiquity of businesses sending texts makes it hard to remember how innovative texting as a channel was; back in the early 2010s, text was primarily used for social and conversational communication. Maybe the occasional doctor’s office or airline would send a text reminder, but SMS was not broadly used as a channel by schools or colleges.

Those novel text nudges appeared successful. Results from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that I conducted with Lindsay Page showed that students who received the texts reminding them of pre-enrollment tasks and connecting them with advisors enrolled in college at higher rates. We had the opportunity to replicate our summer melt work two summers later in additional cities and with engagement from the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences team and found similar impacts.

This evidence emerged as the Obama administration made higher ed policy a greater focus in the second term, with a particular emphasis on expanding college opportunity for underrepresented students. Similar text campaigns expanded rapidly and broadly—most notably former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Up Next campaign—in part because they check numerous boxes for policymakers and funders: Texts are inexpensive to send; text campaigns are relatively easy to implement; and there was evidence of their effectiveness at expanding college access.

Recent experimental studies show that these statewide and national text campaigns have not had the same impact on college enrollment or persistence as we estimated in the initial RCTs.

Fast forward to the present, however, and numerous recent experimental studies show that these statewide and national text campaigns have not had the same impact on college enrollment or persistence as we estimated in the initial RCTs. Nor does the efficacy of large-scale text campaigns seem to vary based on content framing, timing, delivery method, or the offer of one-on-one assistance.

The results from these large-scale experiments raise two important questions: 1) Why aren’t text campaigns working at scale? 2) What are the implications for nudges in education and for ongoing efforts to expand college opportunity? These are essential questions to probe, particularly as policymakers and education leaders consider new investments in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis that has derailed many low-income students’ college plans.

Why aren’t text nudges effective at scale?

To paraphrase Nobel Prize–winning economist Richard Thaler, nudges should make it easier for people to follow through on their own intentions or to pursue opportunities and resources that they see as beneficial. Text campaigns at scale might remind people of what they have to do, but for the reasons I outline below, they might not make completing important and complex tasks (such as applying for financial aid) much easier for the student or family.

Important design differences

Implementing text nudges at scale involves design trade-offs that may reduce campaign efficacy. For instance, the most resource-intensive dimension of text-based advising is hiring staff to respond to students’ texts. Implementing a texting campaign with hundreds of thousands of students may require organizations to forego advising and have texts provide just one-way content or to have large caseloads that limit how much engagement advisors can have with individual students. Another trade-off is that students may have less trust in a state agency or national nonprofit sending the messages. Earlier texting campaigns may have been effective in part because the outreach came from a school or nonprofit (and in some cases a specific counselor) with whom students had a direct relationship. Finally, state- and national-level campaigns have typically sent content that is uniform across all students, whereas earlier, local campaigns often personalized information to students’ college plans or FAFSA (the United States’ government financial aid application) filing status. Highly customized content may have made the messages more salient to students, and correspondingly students may have been less responsive to what they perceived to be more generic information.

Even local text campaigns may face obstacles to efficacy that similar campaigns did not encounter to the same degree a decade ago. Signal Vine, the texting platform with whom we collaborated on our first summer melt projects, now lists dozens of institutional partners on its website. Many colleges and universities now use texting as a core communications channel across numerous different functions, from enrollment management to adult re-enrollment. On top of that, people are now accustomed to receiving text alerts from numerous different services, from food delivery updates to bill payment reminders. As message volume through text increases, we should reasonably expect that any one message won’t get the same attention—and eventually, that people will migrate to other communications channels.

A related reason text campaigns are less effective now may be that the “value-add” of the information and reminders the texts provide has diminished. Seminal studies like Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner’s Expanding College Opportunities project showed that sending students customized information about well-matched colleges could lead students to attend higher-quality institutions. This work and related studies catalyzed substantial outreach and information to students about college and financial aid from higher education institutions themselves, national nonprofit organizations like the College Board, and from both state and federal governments. Informational text messages might just not stand out the way they used to.

The future of nudges in postsecondary education

The lack of impact of text-based outreach at scale doesn’t mean a broader set of nudge strategies couldn’t be effective at promoting greater college access and success for low-income and less-educated populations.

Boosting texting efficacy

Many high schools and colleges still find value in texting as a channel for communicating with and supporting students. Text campaigns are most likely to be effective when they:

  • Are sent by a school and even staff member who students know and trust
  • Add meaningful and novel value above and beyond existing outreach and support efforts like giving students real-time information on the status of their financial aid applications
  • Provide content that is personalized to the student and where they are in the college application and financial aid process
  • Reduce hassles associated with students or parents accessing in-person support. It’s quite possible, for instance, that text-based advising campaigns could be of substantially higher value during COVID-19 when in-person support is much more limited

Room for more powerful nudges and interventions

Contrast text-based outreach with a more powerful set of nudges like those delivered in the H&R Block FAFSA completion study. Researchers worked with H&R Block to have tax professionals provide families assistance with the financial aid application after they completed their income taxes. There were several ways in which this design actually made filing the FAFSA easier for families:

  • The researchers “met families where they were”—at the tax office, with all the documents in hand they would need to apply for financial aid
  • The team used software to pre-populate the FAFSA with information families had already provided through their tax return, saving both families and tax professionals valuable time
  • A tax professional could walk families through the remaining steps of submitting the FAFSA, sparing families the hassle of doing it on their own

The H&R Block study illustrates that there’s still plenty of potential for more powerful nudges to positively impact educational outcomes. Perhaps we’ve just focused too much on texting and other informational campaigns because they are low-hanging fruit and easy for partners to implement.

Nudges are only part of the larger college success story. We have plenty of evidence showing that more intensive strategies can lead to large gains in college persistence and completion.

Of course, it’s important to remember that nudges are only part of the larger college success story. We also have plenty of evidence showing that more intensive strategies, from providing additional need-based financial aid or one-on-one college advising to wraparound college success supports like the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, can lead to large gains in college persistence and completion.

COVID-19 has laid bare the magnitude of inequalities that exist throughout the educational pipeline between affluent and lower-income communities. As states and communities invest in learning recovery efforts, a fundamental question we need to ask is whether we have the appetite and will invest the resources necessary to advance greater equity in postsecondary attainment. Although text-based nudges are unlikely to generate more than modest improvements in student outcomes, the stakes of educational equity are so high that even these limited tools are worth continuing to refine.