Taylor Raby thinks of herself as a good student.
She’s a rising junior at Fairmont State University, studying psychology. She makes to-do lists to keep herself on track. She uses sticky notes and highlighters to keep track of the fine details.
But even careful students need a little help sometimes.
“I’m typically really good about keeping lists and making sure my ducks are in a row,” said Raby, 20. “I remembered to apply for all of the scholarships on my own, but then I got a text about the Higher Education Grant. I had forgotten about that one.”
Raby was in one of the first groups of students enrolled in a special texting program by the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission, which is sponsored by a grant through the Kresge Foundation. Students sign up for the free program and receive a handful of monthly texts with helpful reminders about succeeding in college.
Raby and the staff at HEPC know anecdotally that the program works. Now, they have research to back it up.
Preliminary research from the University of Virginia’s Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness shows that students who signed up for HEPC’s texting initiative were likely to attempt and complete more college credits than students not enrolled in the program.
In addition to receiving updates about scholarships they might be eligible for, students like Raby are reminded to sign up for at least 15 credits every semester and are encouraged to meet frequently with their faculty advisers.
“The text messaging project is showing great promise as an innovative and low-cost method for boosting course enrollment and college retention rates,” said state higher education Chancellor Paul Hill. “As we strive to meet our goal of doubling the number of degrees we produce by 2025, we will look to creative strategies like this to ensure that more of our students graduate on time.”
With the new research in hand, HEPC opened up the texting initiative to graduating seniors across the state this year. A little more than 8,000 students have enrolled in the program, according to Jessica Kennedy, HEPC spokeswoman.
In addition to getting general updates about applying for statewide scholarships, grants and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, several schools partnered with HEPC to send out reminders specific to their own institutions.
Bluefield State College, Concord University, Fairmont State University, Marshall University, Shepherd University, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, West Virginia Northern Community College and West Virginia State University will all partner with the program for the upcoming year.
Students sign up for the program as seniors in high school and receive text messages from January of that year through their time in college. As far as the UVA researchers know, this is the first time empirical evidence has shown that low-cost programs like this actually work.
“Part of the inspiration for the research was my own personal experience. I’m a first generation college student,” said Katharine Meyer, one of the researchers. “There were definitely areas where I struggled a lot more. I had some uncertainties, and I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about course registration that many of my peers did — who had parents who went to college and could help fill in that information.”
This program is designed to help students like Meyer. Not only do students get monthly reminders, they can respond to the message with any questions they might have about the financial aid process.
Each time they do, a college counselor from HEPC will be on the other end to help.
Meyer and her fellow researcher, Benjamin Castleman, caution in the research that their work is preliminary and cannot show a causal relationship between the program and the successes they observed. Because of the research design, they couldn’t randomly assign what students in their sample received the text messages. Still, they were able to rule out other factors as a cause for the increases in credit completion.
Meyer and Castleman found that, even when controlling for students’ high school GPA, family income and ACT and SAT scores, there was a significant relationship between students’ academic performance and their enrollment in the program.
Low-income students at partner colleges which received institution-specific messages, in addition to the statewide messages from HEPC, were more likely each semester to complete about three more credits — an entire extra class — than their peers not in the program.
Students may enroll in the program at any time by visiting the College Foundation of West Virginia’s website.