High school seniors have just graduated, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to start college. 

Summer is a period where many students must overcome barriers to enroll in college, and it’s important for enrollment teams to help them cross the finish line (theyare almost there)! 

Students likely aren’t checking their email every day in the summer but are looking at text messages and messaging apps. In fact, research has found that 98% of all text messages are read within 15 minutes, and messaging apps are actually used more than social media apps.

With email open rates having declined to around 22% in the education industry, chances are your college has added or is looking to add text messaging to your admission communications plan. Of course, introducing a new communication channel raises many new questions: what do we send, who will respond, and how much can a well-designed campaign accomplish? It can be easy to be intimidated by these questions, but you don’t have to be if you prepare correctly.

Before starting to text students, consider the following four criteria to plan your campaigns:

1) Identify key items your students need support with 

Students must sift through a variety of processes after they’ve been accepted and before arriving at your institution. Many students share a high school counselor with 400+ other students, making it easy to get lost without personalized guidance. In this video, Tim Renick, the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management and Student Success at Georgia State University, explains how they used big data to evaluate where they were losing students. One particularly innovative technology GSU implemented was a text messaging chatbot to guide their students through important tasks on the path to enrollment.

 A useful exercise is to line up the important tasks that students must complete on the path to matriculation and identify the most challenging ones. Some tasks that students traditionally struggle to complete in a timely fashion are:

  • FAFSA verification
  • Immunization submissions
  • Submitting their final transcript
  • Applying for housing
  • Completing placement testing

Text messaging is a great way to guide students through these processes. Two-way messaging where students can respond to messages and ask for more information is ideal, but even basic one-way reminders have shown to make a meaningful impact in the completion of enrollment tasks and enrollment.

Only a couple weeks ago, I received a text message reminder from my dentist the day before the appointment. Although I had received a physical card with the date and time, I had forgotten about it and the text message reminder made it easy to add it to my phone calendar.

texting students in higher ed

Just like your dentist or doctor, colleges have been sending personalized text nudges to students to prompt them to complete their FAFSA verification or send their vaccination records. It’s helpful to be proactive and early with these reminders so the students have time to complete them.

2) Determine size and scope of your texting efforts

Deciding which group of students you want to text goes hand in hand with knowing what your students will need the most help with. To help you set your target group, let me propose a few questions:

  • What specific enrollment goals does your team have?
  • Is there a particular group of students that you want to engage to reach one of your goals?
  • Are there any subsets of students that have historically needed more support in the enrollment process, such as first-generation or low-income students, and you’d like to focus more time and resources on?
  • Who is going to manage text message conversations and how many hours a day will they dedicate to this?

Your text messaging campaign should be closely tied to an enrollment goal or a challenge students face. As Sheila Bair, President of Washington College, mentioned one of the two main reasons students drop out after their first year is financial need. In that case, sending students reminders and guidance to complete the FAFSA and targeting at-risk students with scholarships advice can positively impact retention.

Feedback gathered from our focus groups indicates that students expect a faster response via text message as compared to email. There are a couple options to respond to student questions in a timely fashion. Some colleges have dedicated staff members sending and responding to messages. Other colleges like Allegheny College use artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to instantly respond to student questions.

3) Develop the text messaging campaign plan

You’ve thought about who you’ll reach out to and how you’ll allocate resources. Now, consider how you’ll draft your messages.

When working with our college partners, we layer text messaging on top of their other communication campaigns. Using multiple channels like text, social media, email and phone calls increases reach and effectiveness. A great example is how Allegheny College sent admitted students a text message nudging them to sign up for their Class of 2021 Facebook page. Within the first hour they had 30 new signups, and later got more than half of the admitted class to like the page.

An effective strategy to draft your campaigns is to lay out all of your current communication efforts and student reminders. Simultaneously, discover when the most challenging tasks are happening. Scheduling texting campaigns around the rest of your communication efforts and when students need to complete important tasks can be an effective way to build your campaign calendar.

Text messaging is a great way to send quick reminders and receive quick answers. When drafting text campaigns, it is helpful to consider that text messages are shorter and more informal than emails or letters. Text messages are a great opportunity to connect with students on their preferred channel of communication and in a relatable tone, so GIFs and emoji can be wonderful ways to make students smile.

Tina Fey gif

4) Evaluate if your texting campaign was a success

Throughout the entire texting process, it is important to measure results and cross reference your results against your plan. The gold standard of evaluation is running a randomized control trial (RCT), where the treatment group receives the texting intervention.

Researchers Dr. Lindsay Page and Dr. Hunter Gehlbach ran a randomized control trial at Georgia State University to study the effectiveness of text messaging on the enrollment process, and found that the treatment group enrolled at a 3.9% higher rate than the control group.

By running an RCT, you’re able to measure how effective a specific intervention is. However, it’s also important evaluate how much staff time was allocated during the intervention. Keeping a time log can be tedious, but it’s crucial when evaluating how effective the overall effort was.

Finally, getting the student perspective on their experience is an important step in improving the impact of future campaigns. A few effective ways of getting students opinions include sending text surveys and running in-person focus groups. When running focus groups, it is valuable to engage students from different segments of your population and who had different amount of interaction with the texting platform.

Bill Gates Texting with Pounce GSU
via Georgia State University 
Bill Gates texting with Georgia State’s chatbot, Pounce

Adding another layer of communication can be intimidating, but approaching it strategically can help your team evaluate if it is a good fit for your team and for your students. There are a variety of ways colleges have been using mobile messaging to support students throughout the student lifecycle based on their goals and student needs. Identifying your institution’s enrollment goals and the challenges admitted students experience, planning how resources will be allocated, developing a targeted campaign plan, and determining how success will be measured are the first steps to a successful texting campaign.