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Text-Message College Advising: The Great Equalizer?

By Karen Arnold

Associate Professor, Educational Leadership & Higher Education, Boston College

Sadly, high school students’ zip code and their family background are the best predictors of whether and where they begin higher education. We all want to change this disgraceful picture for the sake of our students and our society. Even before the pandemic, our usual face-to-face methods have been unsuccessful in moving the needle on equity in college access. School counselors have large caseloads and responsibilities beyond college advising. Intensive out-of-school college access programs are expensive and reach relatively few students. Even these in-person connections largely disappeared for the pandemic era graduating classes of 2020 and 2021. Now and in the future, we need to find affordable ways to reach hundreds of thousands of college-intending students with effective application and financial aid assistance.

Enter text message college advising. Today’s youth live on their phones. According to the Pew Foundation, 95% of U.S. teenagers own a cell phone. About half say they are on their phone “almost constantly.” Delivering advising fully or partly through cell phone text messages has the promise of reaching students with timely, individualized, two-way communications. Text message college advising campaigns have begun to emerge over the past decade and the first results from these large-scale interventions are just beginning to be published. 

The founders of College Counseling Now studied one of the most ambitious text message interventions to date: Digital Messaging to Improve College Success—DIMES. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, DIMES involved nearly 75,000 students from over 700 high-poverty high schools across 15 states. DIMES was intended to influence college application behavior and enrollment outcomes as measured by the difference between treatment and control groups at the end of the trial. Like other recently reported trials, overall results were disappointing. We set out to understand why by analyzing the content of the advising: the 400,000 text messages that students sent to their advisors over the 15 months of DIMES. What kinds of topics do students raise with advisors through text message? Is it possible for students to establish relationships with advisors via text message? Are student needs and concerns sufficiently similar in content and timing that advising could be automated? How do DIMES student participants experience this mode of advising? 

We learned a lot—about how text message advising works and about why and when it does not. Our analysis of the messages showed what advisors might mistakenly assume that students know and understand. It showed what students need, and when they need it. You can read about our findings and recommendations in the Journal of College Access and see a video of our recent presentation on text message advising at the National School Counseling Leadership Conference.    

Text message advising is not yet the great equalizer we’ve all been seeking. Not yet. It is too soon to abandon the promise of this wide reaching, cost-effective strategy, however. My co-researchers and I will share the many important lessons from DIMES in future blogs. We call on others to join the College Counseling Now conversation about what we are all learning about effective text message advising.