In 2014, College for West Virginia (CFWV) received a grant from the Kresge Foundation to launch a pilot project to provide students with college-counseling via text message. Initially, we tested the intervention by sending messages to students graduating from West Virginia GEAR UP high schools. After two successful years of implementation through the GEAR UP program, we expanded services statewide. The service is now funded by the State of West Virginia and available to any West Virginia student aspiring to attend college in the near future.
This toolkit is intended to help other organizations seeking to incorporate text messaging as a strategy for advising students and families and improving educational outcomes.
Details about our project model and research papers outlining early outcomes are available in the toolkit below. However, the guide that follows can be applied to a myriad of project designs and is intended to serve as a framework for building a unique program to suit your organization’s needs.
Begin by reviewing the practical resources and evaluative research for texting projects occurring across the country. Key resources are included below.
- Launching a text messaging intervention: A workshop for the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships National GEAR UP conference
- Can Text Message Nudges Improve Academic Outcomes in College? Evidence from a West Virginia Initiative
- Virtual Advising: A Case Study by uAspire
- College Foundation of West Virginia: Project Overview
- The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education
- Research portfolio: Dr. Ben Castleman
- Ideas 42: Behavioral Science 101
- Ideas 42: Affordability and Financial Aid in College
- Ideas 42: College Pre-Admissions: Making it to Day One
- Ideas 42: Connecting and Belonging on the College Campus
- Ideas 42: Post-College-Graduation-Day: Get on Track to Pay it Back
- Ideas 42: Saving for College
- Ideas 42: The Balancing Act: Getting to College Graduation on Time
- Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness
- Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College
- Decision Making for Student Success: Behavioral Insights to Improve College Access and Persistence
- Nudge4: Behavioral Insights to Improve Education
Advising to promote growth mindsets
Factors to consider include:
- Project goals (think SMART)
- Counseling strategy (proactive vs. reactive, intrusive vs. basic reminders)
- Staffing and case load managements
- Opt-in processes
Remember: your goal at this stage is to make note of key points or ideas from your research — NOT to make decisions or design your project.
Identify a core project team and bring them together for a guided brainstorming session. We’d recommend including no more than seven people for your core team, including the individual who plans to serve as the project manager.
Individuals you may want to consider include:
- Counselors (K12 or college)
- Admissions officers
- Financial aid officers
- College access program staff
- Student affairs officers
- Academic advisors
- Current college students
- Current middle or high school students
If you have not yet secured buy-in among key partners, you should schedule a separate meeting with leadership teams. While individuals such as college presidents, district superintendents, and chief executives can give you the support you need to launch the project, they likely do not need to be part of the project design.
We’ve found these individuals are most convinced by outcomes-based research and high-level overviews of the proposed project. Many are also interested in the science of “why” this works, so we’d recommend giving a brief overview of the key tenets of behavioral economics.
After the leadership teams at your key partner organizations have given their blessing, ask them to assign staff members to be part of your project team. These individuals will be responsible for digging in and helping with the project design and implementation.
Prior to your first team meeting, make sure all team members have read key research items you think are relevant to your project goals.
A sample agenda for your first meeting might include:
- Team introductions
- An overview of the goals of the project and relevant research
- Mapping your project (see worksheet below)
- Developing your message schedule
- Outlining roles and responsibilities
We recommend using this worksheet to begin exploring practical considerations for your project and brainstorming your message schedule.
We have included below two sample message schedules from our project in West Virginia. Please feel free to use this content as you’d like.
Note on our messaging design: Our schedule begins in October of a student’s 12th grade year and continues through their first year of postsecondary education. In addition to the primary campaign, our college partners may opt to layer on an additional messaging series to cover ideas or topics specific to their institution. This second layer of messaging goes only to students who have chosen to attend their particular college or university. So, in the examples below, ALL West Virginia students participating in our campaign receive the statewide messages. ONLY those students who are participating in our campaign and have elected to go to Concord University receive the Concord-specific messages.
Some programs choose to automatically enroll all students and then allow those students to opt-out if they do NOT want to receive messages. These organizations often gain access to cell phone numbers via a sign-up form for their program, from college enrollment forms, or from a district K12 office.
Please note that federal regulations require that students be given clear and easy options for opting out of messaging AT ANY TIME. If a student responds to your texts with words such as “cancel,” “stop,” or “I don’t want these messages,” you must immediately cease contacting them and remove them from your list. After that, you may not add them back without their explicit consent.
Other organizations, including our project in West Virginia, choose to use an opt-in method. If you use an opt-in strategy, students are not included in your campaign until they have explicitly given you permission to include them. One of the best ways to guarantee opt-ins is to catch students where they already are. For example, we include our opt-in field on a variety of existing applications and sign-up forms, such as:
- The statewide merit-based scholarship application
- College admissions applications (We worked with our college partners to add this field.)
- On the account sign-up form for our statewide college-planning web planning web portal, cfwv.com.
- On inquiry cards at college fairs
- On event registration forms (e.g. financial aid workshops, summer camps, etc.)
- Through a direct sign-up form on our website (Many high school counselors encourage students to sign up using this form when they are working with students on other tasks.)
We use the following language alongside our cell-phone sign-up field:
“By providing your cell phone number above, you are agreeing to receiving college-planning and financial aid reminders from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and its partners, including the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, West Virginia GEAR UP, the College Foundation of West Virginia (CFWV) and public institutions of higher education in West Virginia.”
Text to sign up
In addition to creating sign-up fields, you may be able to utilize a “text-in” sign-up method. Some texting vendors offer a text-in service whereby students can text a particular number to sign up. For example, you might tell students attending an event about your texting program, and encourage them to “text ‘college’ to 12345” to enroll. If you use this enrollment process, students will be prompted to answer a series of questions via text message to complete your database. For example, you might choose to have the system capture their first and last name, their high school or college, or whether or not they have completed the FAFSA.
While this sign-up method can be a convenient way to directly add students to your texting system, we have found that the quality of the data collected through this method is much lower. For example, students often misread the text prompts and give the wrong information, which leads to mistakes in their names or other info within the system. Additionally, students often get bored with the process and fail to complete the necessary steps. As a result, we only use this method for short campaigns for which we need very little information from the student. For our statewide campaign, which incorporates the use of many data fields to offer intensive personalization, we rely on the methods outlined in the bulleted list above.
Regardless of whether you choose an opt-out or opt-in method, we recommend including notes about the project within the first message you send to each participant. This message should include:
- Who you are
- The type of content to expect
- The expected frequency for messages
- Notes on responsiveness
- How to opt out
- Ways to authenticate the sender
Example introductory message:
Part 1: (1/3) Hi [first name]! This msg is CFWV. We work for the State of WV and provide free college planning help.
Part 2: (2/3) To help you get ready for college, we’ll send you a few texts a month. You can text us anytime for help, so you might want to save our number.
Part 3: (3/3) To cancel msgs, reply “cancel.” Want to make sure this is legit? Call 304-558-0655. Standard text rates apply.
Two-way counseling strategies
During the planning and design stage of your project, you should have decided on your counseling approach. Is your advising intrusive? Or more reactive? Make sure you have articulated your strategy to anyone responding to messages within your system.
One good question to identify your counseling approach is to ask yourselves how you will respond to the following response from a student:
“I’m not going to college.”
Do you simply remove the student from your list and move on? Or do you ask questions to try to figure out if he or she has a plan? Do you offer help? The answer to this question will likely depend on your staffing capacity — but it’s important to have everyone on the same page from the start.
Expect most of your responses from participants to occur immediately following your outgoing messages. While you may receive messages at any time of day or night, the vast majority arrive within the hour immediately following a scheduled campaign message.
When we develop our message schedule, we also schedule calendar invites for each message and send them to anyone serving as a counselor in our texting portal. The invite lists the date and time of the outgoing text, and the notes section includes the text message being sent and its associated notes (see Step 8). We expect our counselors to save these appointments on their calendars and to log on to the texting portal to respond to messages on any day an outgoing message is scheduled.
There’s an old saying: “If it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s no ones.” This is particularly true of managing your texting inbox. We recommend choosing one person on your project team who is responsible for logging in every work day to check on messages. He or she does not have to answer them all – they just need to be the person who makes sure SOMEONE does. It should also be this person’s responsibility to find a suitable replacement for this role when he or she is unavailable. For example, if your responsiveness leader is going on vacation, he or she should ask someone to check the inbox daily during the absence.
The number of students you want to assign to any particular counselor’s case load will vary widely depending on your counseling model and the participants you are serving. It may also vary based on the topic you are discussing. For example, when we send out messages at the start of the fall semester of college, a huge proportion of our (nervous) incoming college freshmen respond. Reminders to meet with a college advisor midway through the semester generate fewer responses. It may take you a while to determine your staffing needs. As a GENERAL rule of thumb, try to have at least one counselor per 200 students.
Some texting systems allow you to set up auto-responses similar to an “out of the office” message you might use for email. We have used this feature for periods of time in which no one will be available to check the texting inbox regularly. For example, during the holidays, we set up the following auto-response message:
“Hi and thanks for messaging us! Unfortunately we are out of the office celebrating the holidays and will not be able to respond until January 2. If you need immediate help, please call <insert office number> during regular office hours. Happy holidays!”
Auto-responses can also be useful if you are experiencing staffing issues. For example, if several of your staff members are on vacation and you have an outgoing message coming up, you might set up an auto-response that says:
“Thanks for messaging us! We’re receiving a lot of questions right now and apologize if it takes a bit longer than usual to get back to you. We’ll answer as soon as we can!”
One-way reminder systems
If you chose a one-way reminder system, you should merely check your schedule periodically from this point forward to make sure content is still accurate and appropriate. (We all know things can change!)
Two-way counseling systems
If you chose a two-way system, the fun (and rewarding) part is about to begin!
As noted in step 7, you should have a solid plan for staffing to ensure timely responses from your counseling team. It can also be helpful to create a texting handbook that outlines your message schedule and provides notes for your counselors. The handbook should include…
- notes on the purpose and design of each message
- a list of common questions participants are likely to ask in response
- a list of resources counselors may employ in answering questions
You can view (and use) a copy of our messaging handbook here.
We encourage our counselors to pretend the participant is in their office talking to them when responding to text. It helps us create a friendly and personal vibe to an intrinsically digital system. For example, if a student texts back “thank you” our counselors are likely to say something like “You’re welcome! Good luck with your first day of class and text me anytime you need help!” It would be easy to simply mark that “thank you” as “read” in the texting inbox and move on to someone with a more urgent question, but taking the time for niceties builds an ongoing rapport.
Just like their counterparts working in a classroom or on a campus, our texting counselors are trained to deal with sensitive issues and to understand their duties to report potentially dangerous circumstances. For example, if a student texts a counselor indicating that he or she has or is being harmed — or has plans to harm himself or herself — the counselor should notify the proper authorities. If you are unfamiliar with dealing with these issues, engage your partner team to conduct the appropriate trainings and identify applicable policies.