How Personalized Outreach (& Texting) Improves First Gen Enrollment

Jennifer Wheary, Ben Castleman
October 4, 2013

ben CastlemanBen Castleman is an Acting Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Virginia. He has received numerous awards and grants for his research on ways to use personalized outreach to improve college access and success. Before completing his doctoral work at Harvard, Ben was a teacher and district administrator at The Met Center school district in Providence, RI. He is a graduate of Brown University. 

Here Ben explains what he has learned and what motivates his work.

 

 

Jennifer Wheary: What type of research do you do and why?

Ben: I work with schools and education agencies to develop innovative and low-cost strategies to help students access and succeed in college. I’m particularly interested in ways to simplify and personalize college and financial aid information for students and their families, and to make it easy for students to access professional assistance at any point in their college trajectory.

I do this type of work because I was a teacher and school administrator long before I was a researcher, and I was close to a lot of students who worked very hard in high school to make college a reality, but encountered obstacles in the eleventh hour that they and their parents had a hard time overcoming. I believe that any student who works hard through high school and wants to pursue college should have the opportunity to do so.

What lessons can first generation students learn from your work?

"You belong. You shouldn’t expect to know everything you have to do to be successful, and it’s ok to ask for help."

If I could say one thing to a first generation student heading off to college it would be, “You belong.”

I think first generation students often feel like they’re just temporary visitors to a club that students from college-educated families have known how to navigate since birth. This feeling that other students have everything already figured out can make first generation students feel bad about reaching out for help, or even begin to doubt whether they should be on campus in the first place. The reality, of course, is that students from college-educated families frequently have parents who are shepherding them through the first year.

There’s a reason we talk a lot about helicopter parents. If a kid tells his Ph.D. mom that he didn’t do well on a test, she probably stays on him to talk to his professor and go to tutoring until he pulls his grades up. First generation students don’t always have someone to turn to who can provide this kind of guidance. But at many colleges, I think there’s a genuine desire to help first generation students and to support them to succeed in college.

So the main lessons are: you belong; you shouldn’t expect to know everything you have to do to be successful; and it’s ok to ask for help if you’re having a hard time.

What lessons can those supporting first generation students learn from your work?

I think the main lesson here is that a little bit of personalized outreach goes a long way.

Most of my research has focused on evaluating the impact of providing a little bit of extra help to low-income or first-generation students. In some studies, my colleagues and I have had school counselors do additional outreach to students; in others we’ve had peer mentors contact students to provide encouragement and support. More recently we’ve experimented with sending students personalized text message reminders of important tasks to complete, either to matriculate in college in the first place or to persist once they’ve enrolled.

All of these initiatives have been relatively low-touch, from counselors investing a couple hours per student to sending students a handful of text messages. But we’ve consistently found that students are very responsive to this kind of personalized support, and that even a small amount of additional guidance can have a substantial impact on whether students enter or persist in college.  Especially with the technologies we have access to and the amount of information we often know about students, the barriers to any educational institution doing this kind of outreach are pretty low.

What policy changes does your work suggest? 

Just making more information available is not enough.

My work suggests a couple of policy changes. First, I don’t think we can assume that just making more information available is enough. There have been many efforts of late to make more college and financial aid information available to students and their families. Some examples are net price calculators that give students an estimate of how much a particular college would cost them and college search tools that allow students to come up with personalized college rankings based on factors that are important to them.

Most of these initiatives are designed with an “If we build it, they will come” mentality. I don’t think that’s a very realistic approach, since it assumes students and their parents will know that these tools exist in the first place. I would like to see more concerted policy efforts to send students and their families proactive, personalized, and timely prompts to make use of these tools.

Second, while I think we should continue to create more personalized and simplified information, I don’t think we should assume that information alone will be sufficient to help most first generation students navigate college and financial aid applications—they’re just too complex.  Instead, I think we need to come up with creative strategies to make personalized, professional help available to all students who need it.

One idea I’m particularly interested in pursuing is live chat support when students are searching for colleges or completing college and financial aid applications. It’s no accident that many private businesses now provide live chat support on their sites. They know websites can be confusing, and want to do whatever they can to help consumers buy stuff. College and financial aid websites are just as confusing. I think we should follow the private sector’s lead here and make it as easy as possible for students to get real-time support when they need it.

Describe an upcoming project you are excited about and why.

I cut my teeth as a teacher and administrator at an urban high school, and most of my work so far has focused on ways to improve college access and success for urban students. But there are clearly many hard-working first generation students in rural areas who are equally deserving of support. Improving college access in rural areas has traditionally been hard, though, since students are so dispersed—this makes it hard to plop down a college access organization that can provide guidance to a lot of kids. But most students in rural areas have cell phones, which means that we can still get them personalized information about important college tasks to complete—and we can invite them to connect remotely with a college or financial aid professional who can provide individualized support.

I’m very excited for an upcoming project with the West Virginia Higher Education Planning Commission. We’ll be sending students attending West Virginia GEAR UP high schools personalized text messages about important college and financial aid tasks. The messages will start in the spring of senior year of high school and continue into freshman year of college. This is a particularly exciting initiative because everyone is joining in to support students – the planning commission, the high schools, and the West Virginia colleges most frequently attended by students from these GEAR UP high schools. The potential to scale this kind of model to rural settings all over the country is very exciting to me.

More about Ben’s research:


Ben Castleman is an Acting Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Virginia. He has received numerous awards and grants for his research on ways to use personalized outreach to improve college access and success. Before completing his doctoral work at Harvard, Ben was a teacher and district administrator at The Met Center school district in Providence, RI. He is a graduate of Brown University. More about Ben >>

Jennifer Wheary is an education policy writer and creator, with Caitlin Johnson, of  First to Finish College, a joint project of SparkAction and Demos.

Share your voice by commenting below or joining the First to Finish College community.