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Text Messages Used as Tool to Keep Students on Track for College

If you want to get in touch with a teenager, you text.

Counselors, too, are finding text messages can be an effective way to get important information about the transition from high school to college into the hands of their students.

The practice is getting some traction following research by Benjamin Castleman of the University of Virginia and Lindsay Page of the University of Pittsburgh. They found personalized and strategically paced text messages during the summer after graduation can improve college-matriculation rates, particularly for at-risk students. And, given the low cost—about $7 per studentby one estimate—it's also a cost-effective strategy to address the "summer melt" when students can drop off the radar without school support.

I take a closer look at this research and several texting initiatives in a new Education Week story.

From urban programs in New York City to a new pilot targeting rural students in West Virginia, texting is seen as a promising strategy to gently remind students of deadlines to fill out financial-aid applications, complete housing forms, and register for classes. Most initiatives also offer more support beyond the text messages for students who need it.

Those working to ease the transition note that there is often a shift in mindset from high school—where counselors are holding the hands of students until graduation—to college, where students are expected to be independent. Texting can be a way to maintain connection during this change in support systems.

Linda Swanson, a counselor at South Sioux City High School, in South Sioux City, Nebraska, said that after nine months of ongoing support in the college process, she noticed that over the summer, some students didn't follow through with their plans once they were not in constant contact.

Swanson explored ways to stay in touch with students through social media and texting, attending a workshop through EducationQuest, a nonprofit in Lincoln, Neb., aimed at improving access to higher education, and tapping into the expertise of her own teenage daughter to learn about Twitter. 

Last year, Swanson gave seniors an exit survey at graduation practice for the first time and asked to share their cell phone numbers so counselors could keep in touch by phone or text. Ms. Swanson also began communicating with students on Twitter and Facebook.

"Some were nervous at first that I would follow them on Twitter, but I said 'I don't want any more of your drama.' I do not follow kids back through the guidance Twitter page," said Ms. Swanson. 

Counselors tweet about scholarship deadlines and students text to set up times to pick up transcripts. Social media and texting have proven to be a good way to get students to come in for help, and, surprisingly, underclassmen, not just high school seniors, have responded, she added. College-going application and enrollment rates are inching up at the 1,100-student South Sioux City High, as well, she said.

"I'm always amazed at what the next thing is. There is always something new coming—Snapchat or Vine or Instagram," said Ms. Swanson. "We have to keep up with technology, make sure it's appropriate, and respond."

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