Timely Texting

The surprising strategy to boost college attendance.


QA with Ben Castleman

It happens every summer: High school graduates decide not to go to college, even though they’ve already been accepted. It’s a particular problem for low-income students.

Believe it or not, the solution could be texting.

UVA’s Benjamin Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy in the Curry School of Education, is a senior adviser to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative to expand college opportunity for America’s youth. Illimitable asked him about the surprising power of texting.

Q. Why do some low-income teens not attend college even though they’ve been accepted?

A. Complex decisions without professional advice – things like applying for financial aid, registering for classes, evaluating loan options. If students are balancing work and family commitments, these tasks are much more difficult to complete. And because high school is over but college hasn’t started, it’s hard to get guidance.

Q. How big is this problem?

A. It affects more than one in five high school graduates. While some choose other options like taking a job or joining the military, for others it’s a setback. They worked hard to get into college and find themselves facing real barriers to enrollment.

Q. Why should more people go to college?

A. A degree is the most reliable path to a decent income. College grads also tend to be healthier, have more stable marriages and their kids do better. Society benefits, too: more tax revenue and greater equality. So everyone wins when more people lead productive, healthy lives.

Q. How does texting help?

A. Texts can remind kids of deadlines, nudge them along and provide an easy way for them to get help. They’re a low-cost way to encourage active and informed decision-making.

Q. What makes them so effective?

A. Texts get attention. They make a noise and/or vibrate. They stand out on your phone, separate from all other content. And texts force people to take complex information and consolidate it into short, timely bursts of actionable information.

Q. What kinds of results have you seen so far?

A. We’re getting upwards of 60 percent to 70 percent response rates across the projects we’ve done. And very low opt-out rates: 3 percent to 4 percent.

We’re learning what drives success. First, the texts have to come from a known, trusted organization with which the student has a relationship. You also need to be personal, timely, and relevant: “Here’s the task that you have to complete this week at the college you’re planning to attend.”

Q. Sounds a lot like consumer marketing.

A. Absolutely. We’re applying strategies that the private sector has been using for decades. Marketers deserve a lot of credit. They understand human behavior and how to influence it.

Q. It also sounds like this could go further than higher ed.

A. It’s potentially valuable to any organization providing a public service – a school encouraging kids to work hard, a state encouraging people to apply for college and financial aid, a jail or prison helping people successfully transition back into society.

Q. So texting finally has something positive associated with it.

A. Definitely. We all benefit when people with fewer opportunities or resources can pursue more stable, productive and rewarding lives. And texting is an easy, cost-effective way to help make that happen.