Michelle Obama

How Texting Can Change the Way First-Generation Students Experience College

When I was a doctoral student at Harvard University, I served as a residential advisor for 27 freshmen. What struck me was the vast diversity of life experiences among these young people living within a single entryway at Harvard. We had direct descendants of the Founding Fathers, whose families had attended the university for untold generations. And in the same suite were students who were the first in their family to complete high school—let alone college—and who had bounced among various shelters for most of their high school career. Some students would come into advising meetings having scoured the course catalog and generated a ranked list of potential courses. But others weren’t quite sure where to begin. More often than not, these decisions were particularly challenging for students from lower-income backgrounds or who were the first in their families to go to college. Lacking access to informed familial experience and guidance, and in the midst of transitioning to a world profoundly different from their home community, these students resorted to simplifying strategies that often led them to courses that were not aligned with their academic interests or goals. As my research has focused on student and parent decision-making in education, I often think back to these advising conversations. If students at the most highly endowed university in the world struggle with these complex decisions, imagine what it’s like for students and families in underresourced communities to make decisions about their own education.

The First Lady Has Something to Say

First Lady Michelle Obama is no stranger to confronting these kinds of challenges. As a first-generation college student at Princeton University, she once wrote, “I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus, as if I really don't belong.” She has spoken of her own confusion as a college freshman, from uncertainty in picking classes to getting lost on campus to her shock at fellow students driving BMWs. The First Lady recently launched Up Next, a Better Make Room mobile messaging campaign that gives students and families across the country free personalized support on all things college—college search and application, federal student aid, even student loan repayment—all through texting. The campaign is low-cost and evidence-based; in fact, research my colleagues and I have conducted shows that this approach can significantly increase students’ college enrollment and persistence, at an investment of only about 15 cents per student served. In our study, 73 percent of students who received the texts enrolled in college immediately after high school compared to only 66 percent of those who did not receive the texts. Similarly, 68 percent of students who received the texts continued on to their sophomore year of college—while only 54 percent of their control group peers did the same.

How It Works

So, here’s how Up Next works. Students text in order to sign up for 
Up Next and are prompted to respond to simple questions that help tail Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 1.59.20 PMor campaign content for them appropriate to their stage of education. This content continues to adapt to students based on their responses to ongoing automated texts. Better Make Room will also introduce various innovations in the Up Next content over time, from embedding images and video to providing opportunities for students to ask personal questions and receive one-on-one college advising. Up Next guides students through a range of steps toward enrolling in and completing college, sending reminders, information and encouragement. The texts cover topics like taking college entrance exams, applying to a broad range of colleges and universities as well as for financial aid, transitioning to college and navigating new cultural 
environments, and making informed decisions about initial borrowing and repayment options for student loans. All students have to do is text the word COLLEGE to 44044. Better Make Room takes it from there, walking students through the college process from start to finish using Up Next! Here’s what you can do to help get high school and college students signed up for free college support:
  1. Tell students about Up Next.
  2. Print this sign and put it up in places where students can see it—classrooms, community spaces, school gyms, etc.
  3. Share about Up Next on social media. You can share this link, or print the sign and take a picture of yourself with it—just like former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Spread the word, and get students engaged with the First Lady’s campaign!
Parts of this blog post were adapted from Ben Castleman’s book, “The 160 Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education.”.
Ben Castleman
Ben Castleman is a professor at University of Virginia and senior advisor to Better Make Room.

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