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In Defense of Text Message Nudges

In Defense of Text Message Nudges

For organizations supporting college persistence, nudges by text message have been heralded as a potential gamechanger. Early on, programs like Georgia State and uAspire demonstrated encouraging results in reducing summer melt and engaging students along the college journey, with Georgia State attributing a 22 percent reduction in students lost to summer melt to a texting campaign.

Given the stubborn gap in college graduation rates between low-income students and their wealthier peers, it’s easy to understand why these early successes are so encouraging. High-touch support models have demonstrated success in helping students reach graduation, but they can be very costly and difficult to scale. Could a few simple text messages really move the needle on college success?

That’s the question posed by two recent studies published by the College Board and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which examined recent nudging campaigns focused on FAFSA completion and undermatching. The campaigns were designed to reach a significant population at scale, upwards of 800,000 students on the road to college. And the results? Little to no effect on student outcomes.

But looking a little deeper, researchers from both studies pointed to potential issues in campaign design and implementation. Because the campaigns were designed to reach such a broad population of students, they were lacking in personalization and microtargeting, and too generic for students to take notice. The true takeaway from these studies is that text messaging can be an effective tool for nudging positive student outcomes – but not all campaigns are created equal. There is more to learn about how to make the biggest impact.

To help students stay on track to college success, here are a few tips to maximize the impact of your text messaging campaigns.

Segment campaigns for greater personalization

Technology can make it possible for a small advising team to scale its efforts, and text messaging is one tool to reach students through bulk campaigns. But if messages are too generic, students will tune them out. To bring in a greater level of personalization, consider targeting campaigns to specific student segments. For example, a summer melt campaign could tailor messaging for those students attending college out-of-state, acknowledging the unique challenges they face during the transition.

Nurture real-life relationships

When a student is struggling, what often matters most is knowing that someone has their back. A few words of encouragement from a trusted advisor can go a long way, in a way that all the chatbots and text messages in the world could never replace. Where technology can make a difference is by supporting these relationships and helping advisors prioritize effectively. College Board’s recent study indicated that nudges offering “human assistance” had a greater impact – reaching students at scale, and urging them to raise a hand if they need real-life support.

Use the right tool at the right time

Texting can be a great way to meet students where they are. But if you land in their inboxes too often, response rates are likely to drop. Be selective and have a clear goal in mind to ensure a text messaging campaign is the most effective tool for the objective at hand.


Learn more about how to support students to college success at scale. Download our FREE new e-book, “Supporting Students All the Way to College Graduation: Solutions to Five Common Challenges.”