How text message assistance can increase college enrollment by 8%

Intervention · Education


After graduating from high school, enrolling in college can be a daunting task. It can be particularly challenging for students from low-income backgrounds who may have less resources or insufficient parental support with the process. This often leads to potential college students failing to successfully enroll. 

Searching for a cost effective way to increase enrollment, this intervention tested whether proactive outreach by counselors and peer mentors could improve enrollment rates. During the summer, they tested three interventions. In the first intervention, a school counselor reached out to college-intending high school graduates and offered assistance in the enrollment process. In the second intervention, they sent personalized text messages to students with reminders of tasks they needed to complete, as well as advice from a counselor. The third tested whether outreach from a peer could be as effective as outreach from a counselor. All three interventions found that proactively reaching out to the students over the summer and providing them with information and individualized assistance resulted in significant improvements in college enrollment rates. 


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Rating: 3/5 (data analysis not explained; large sample size)

Offering high school graduates assistance with the college enrollment process increases enrollment rates
Proactive outreach and assistance from a counselor over the summer via text, email and phone Increased enrollment by 5-8%
Reminders via text message from a school counselor about the tasks that need to be completed for enrollment  Increased enrollment in two-year institutions by over 3%
Peer mentors assisted students visa in-person meetings and phone calls Increased four-year enrollment by approximately 5%

Key Concepts

Nudges: shaping the environment to guide behavior in a predictable way without changing incentives or available options.

“Summer melt”: a phenomenon where students’’ academic achievements decline between the end of one school year and the start of the next. 

The Problem

College-intending high school graduated fail to enroll to college

Studies show that there is around a 40% difference between in the number of students who are accepted to college and the number that actually attend in the end.1 This gap may be due to the complicated list of tasks that colleges require their students to complete to successfully enroll, such as organizing finances, filling out housing forms, and completing placement tests. The complexity of the paperwork and deluge of new information may lead to procrastination and suboptimal decision-making. As these tasks generally need to be done in the summer after high school, students also no longer have access to support from their high schools. This is particularly overwhelming for low income or first-generation college students who may face more uncertainty about college life or whose parents may lack knowledge about the enrollment process.

Adolescents are more likely to procrastinate on difficult tasks

The period of time when students must prepare for college also occurs when neurological systems necessary for self-regulation are still underdeveloped. They are more likely to engage in hyperbolic discounting and thus forgo tasks that can bring long term benefits - such as completing college and financial aid processes - for activities that provide more immediate pleasure. The complexity of decisions they have to make may also cause stress and undermine their confidence to make decisions about their future.2 


Support from a counselor to increase enrollment rates

The three interventions were conducted to find the most cost efficient way of mitigating the “summer melt” and increase enrollment rates. The first intervention tested whether support from a school counselor over the summer could increase enrollment rates. They randomly selected a treatment and control group from 90,000+ college-intending students in the metro-Atlanta area of Georgia. The treatment group received a proactive outreach from a counselor over the summer, while the control group did not. First, the counselors met with the students in-person and created a list of tasks that needed to be completed to start college in the fall. Then, the counselors followed-up with the students over the summer by text, email, phone, and in-person meetings (when necessary).  

Personalized text message reminders and peer-mentors to provide support

Two follow-up interventions were conducted to test whether the outreach process could be automated using personalized text message reminders, and if peer mentors would be as more effective than support from counselors. For these two interventions, the researchers randomly selected from a sample of approximately 12,500 students from the Philadelphia metropolitan area. To test the effectiveness of personalized text message guidance, 8-10 text messages were sent to students and their parents over the summer reminding them of key tasks that needed to be completed for their intended college. The messages also offered help from a school counselor. 

For the intervention using peer mentors, current college students, who had overcome the “summer melt” and successfully enrolled, contacted the students to assess their readiness for fall enrollment. Then, they held multiple in-person meetings or made phone calls to assist the prospective college students along the process.

4E framework

The 4E framework of behavioral change is composed of four strategies for improving interventions through  increased access to services, incentives, information, and social networks. The framework comes in many forms, which are typically dependent on the field to which it is applied. In this example, the students are encouraged to enroll in college by enabling, encouraging, engaging and exemplifying particular behaviors that are conducive to successful college enrollment. The proactive outreach from counselors and peers enable the students to make responsible decisions. The peer support also provides encouragement to the students to enroll. By helping students understand what they need to do, the intervention engages them in the process. Finally, the peers exemplify that enrollment can be accomplished successfully. 

Results and Application

High school graduates benefit from summer counseling

Almost 50% of students in the treatment group met with the counselor during the summer, while only 2% from the control group did. The summer counseling support increased college enrollment by approximately 5%-8%. In follow-up focus groups and interviews, students revealed that the primary reason they enrolled was because counselors helped them qualify for financial aid and helped them access important information. Additionally, the students who were offered assistance were also more likely to stay in college, as students in the treatment group were 7% more likely to stay for the spring semester of freshman year and 9% more likely to stay through the fall semester of sophomore year. 

Personalized text messages and peer mentoring increase enrollment

Text message reminders increased enrollment in two-year institutions by over 3%. Overall, the text messages were most effective with students from low-income backgrounds. Peer outreach increased four-year enrollment by approximately 5%. 

Climate & Energy Despite widespread concern for the environment, most people do not engage in environmentally sustainable behaviors. Text messages that increase sustainability awareness and provide practical tips for leading a more environmentally friendly lifestyle could reduce the intention-action gap.3
Financial Services Having sufficient savings creates a safety net that can reduce financial stress and improve quality of life. However, information avoidance can lead to poor financial decisions. Text messages can be used to encourage people to save.4
Health & Wellbeing Despite children being a significant source of transmission, vaccination of children against influenza remains low. Text messaging can be used to remind and promote vaccinating children with the influenza vaccination.5


  • Provides a cost effective way of increasing college enrollment, specifically for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 
  • The intervention focuses primarily on providing support to students who may not have adequate help from their parents. 
  • The presentation of research methods and analysis of data is inadequate for replication.

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
Yes, as providing support can help increase college enrollment within low-income populations. 
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
None of the students’ personal information was revealed.
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
Insufficient Information
Plans to monitor safety, effectiveness and validity are not mentioned.

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
Insufficient Information
No information provided on how they got students’ consent. 

Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
The intervention does not force behavior change or restrict options
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
By providing students with more information on financial aid options, it increases the number of choices available to them

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
Insufficient Information
No information on perspectives, interests, and preferences of those affected. 
Are the participants diverse?
Room for Improvement
They only mention that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were part of the study
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
By providing students with support on enrolling into college, students who may not have managed on their own - specifically first generation college students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds - are given the opportunity to attend college. 

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Texting Students Towards College Success

There is an abundance of literature on how the use of text messages can improve postsecondary outcomes. However, there remain some details of these interventions that need to be ironed out, such as, if the timing of messages has an effect. In this interview, Dr. Ryan Yeung explains how his research on text messaging can be used to increase enrollment and success of students in college.

Nudging kids to school with Emily Bailard and Steven Masnajak

Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 6 children were chronically absent from school. Today, 1 in 3 are chronically absent. Why is this the case? This episode discusses how certain nudges, such as text message reminders, have actually backfired and reduced attendance. Additionally, they delve into how the nuances of these nudges makes it difficult for schools to implement behavioral interventions and how schools can implement them more successfully to reduce growing school absenteeism.


  1. Castleman, B., & Page, L. (2013). A Trickle or a Torrent? Understanding the Extent of Summer “Melt” Among College-Intending High School Graduates. Social Science Quarterly, 95(1), 202-220.
  2. Castleman, B. L., & Page, L. C. (2013). The not-so-lazy days of summer: Experimental interventions to increase college entry among low-income high school graduates. New Directions for Youth Development, 2013(140), 77-97.
  3. Cheng, T., Woon, D. K., & Lynes, J. K. (2011). The use of message framing in the promotion of environmentally sustainable behaviors. Social Marketing Quarterly, 17(2), 48-62.
  4. Girard, K. (2012, October 24). Want people to save more? Send a text. Harvard Business School.
  5. Stockwell, M., Kharbanda, E., Martinez, R., Vargas, C., Vawdrey, D., & Camargo, S. (2012). Effect of a text messaging intervention on influenza vaccination in an urban, low-income pediatric and adolescent population. JAMA, 307(16), 1702.
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