Texting: Is it the Key to a Better College Transition?

Aug 25, 2016

We use text messaging for a variety of things; to chat with family and friends, to check-in with a coworker, or send a photo, but what about for academics?

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission has been a pioneer in helping to develop a national text message counseling program that helps first-time college students transition more easily into college life. This year, that program goes statewide.

Jada Kuhn is 18 years-old and a 2016 graduate of Winfield High School in Putnam County. This fall is her first semester at Shepherd University, but she says she’s not as nervous about college as maybe some of her peers. Why? Last fall, her high school encouraged her to sign up for a text message counseling program through the state’s higher education system.

“The text messaging service just seemed really convenient for me," Kuhn said, "and it didn’t really seem like I had to put in any effort, and they would take care of what I needed to know.”

The text messaging service is for high school seniors (however, anyone who is a first-year college student can sign up, so non-traditional students are also welcome to the program) and works like this – once a student signs up, their number is stored in a database with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. Students receive automated reminders at various times of the year to make sure they have been applying to colleges, signed up for orientation with their school of choice, and of course, to apply for federal financial aid. During that student’s first year of college, those reminders continue.

But the automated system isn’t actually fully automated.  If a student texts back, he or she will more than likely hear from a real person at either the WV HEPC or their chosen university.

How to Sign Up:

“If I would respond to a text, they would respond back," Kuhn explained, "there was a time where I needed to know what kind of school supplies to get for college, because you feel like, okay I need to get the same thing for high school, but you don’t really know, cause you’ve never been here, so I sent and I asked what kind of school supplies I should get, and they sent a list of what I should buy for maybe my first week of college just to be a little prepared.”

Shepherd University has between 300 and 400 students who are signed up for the text messaging service. But only one counselor at the university is assigned to respond to students' questions and concerns. 

Julia Flocco is that counselor.

She says at first she was hesitant about signing-on to do the program, but she says the response blew her away.

“I was really surprised at first, because I was like, there are students who are really texting. Like, some students were talking about their fears, things they’re nervous about, tips about time management, like, I’m nervous about – can I get to class on time, how does an online class work, and I’m like, they’re really like, talking and opening up,” she said.

Flocco receives the students’ text messages through an online system that works like email for her, but comes through like a text message for the students.

In total, there are about 15-20 text message counselors at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. At the state's university partners, there are 1-2 counselors depending on the size of the school.

Credit Pixabay.com

The brain behind the national text messaging program is Ben Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. Castleman started developing the project in 2012 as part of his graduate dissertation after noticing students benefited from some additional college counseling the summer after their senior year.

Castleman spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting via Skype.

“What we also found though is that counselors were having to spend a lot of time just getting in touch with students," Castleman noted, "Phone calls were going unanswered, emails would bounce back. Once they were able to connect, the students typically were very grateful for the interaction and the advice they got from the counselors.”

This gave him the idea that text messages might work better than an email blast - especially with the current generation entering college.

“We thought text messaging could be an effective way to both provide them with information, but also make it easy for them to connect to one-on-one assistance if they needed help,” he said.

West Virginia was one of the first states to work closely with Castleman on the initiative back in 2012.

When the program began, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission texted about 900 students at 14 high schools. On the college level, only Concord, Bluefield, Marshall, and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College were involved.

“So that first year, we’re just now starting to get the sort of evaluation completed from that first group," said Jessica Kennedy, the Director of Communications and Outreach at the WV HEPC, "and we did see some really promising results in terms of students being more likely to persist [in college] if they received the text messages, and they also did a little better academically than their peers who didn’t receive the text messages. So we’re hoping that we’ll see that continue because we’ve expanded the program.”

This year, all high schools in West Virginia are part of the program with 8 college partners. All-in-all, about 9,000 students have already signed up.