Can Texting Get More Young People To College? Lumina Thinks So

Want to communicate with teens or young adults? Text them. You've seen them — teens gazing at their smartphones, fingers flying across the tiny keyboards to send messages to friends. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that text messaging is the No. 1 mode of communication among teens, with many sending dozens of texts a day.

The University of Virginia has taken notice and would like to leverage this method of communication as a tool for helping students apply for and obtain financial aid. With college costs soaring, financial aid has become ever more crucial for students who want to continue their education beyond high school. Virginia recently obtained a $130,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation that would provide students with customized financial aid information and access to professional help. How? By texting them.

The method has potential. In recent years, some schools have used text messaging campaigns to stem what is known as "summer melt," in which high school graduates who have been accepted into college fail to enroll anywhere in the fall after high school. Harvard researchers have found summer attrition rates ranging from 10 to 40 percent. Summer melt is especially pronounced among students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

One reason for summer melt may be the lack of access to guidance or support in completing tasks necessary for college enrollment, such as applying for financial aid or obtaining student housing. In 2012, Harvard researchers tried a campaign that sent customized text messages to recent graduates in four urban school districts who had college intentions, reminding them to complete a series of important summer tasks, such as applying for placement testing, completing housing forms, and applying for financial aid. The texts also offered to connect students with help from counselors.

Overall, the study found that the text messaging intervention increased college enrollment, including by students from low-income families. Further, texting is more cost-effective than many traditional "summer bridge" programs at colleges, an important consideration as colleges and universities face growing pressure to lower costs by trimming their budgets.

Given its goal of increasing the proportion of Americans with postsecondary degrees, you can see why the Lumina Foundation is excited about the possibilities of using texting to get young people through the obstacle course that leads to college.

Our bet is that more high school and college administrators who want to get students thinking about higher education, and how to pay for it, will look at initiatives with a texting component, and that more funders will, too.

Again: If you want to reach young people, you have to reach them where they are — and they are texting.