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IES Grant

Title: Digital Messaging to Improve College Enrollment and Success
Center: NCER Year: 2014
Principal Investigator: Avery, Chris Awardee: Harvard University
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (7/1/2014 – 6/30/2018) Award Amount: $3,499,999
Type: Efficacy and Replication Award Number: R305A140121

Co-Principal Investigator: Bridget Terry Long

Purpose: This project will assess the efficacy of an intervention that provides high quality college-going information as well as informational counseling to low-income students when they are applying to, enrolling in, and entering college. Because low-income students often come from families with limited college experience, and may not receive adequate information about college from their high schools, the college application process can pose a substantial barrier to enrolling in college. The intervention combines a text messaging campaign that will provide timely, accurate and digestible information with phone-based counseling to low-income students. The goal of this project is to assess whether two text-messaging campaigns, a national campaign and a Texas-based campaign, can increase the percentages of low-income students applying to, enrolling in, and persisting in college.

Project Activities: In partnership with the College Board, researchers will recruit a sample of 75,000 low-income eleventh graders taking the PSAT during the 2014-15 school year. In partnership with nine districts in Texas, researchers will recruit a sample of 16,000 eleventh graders during the 2014-15 school year. Participating students will be randomly assigned to one of two text-messaging interventions or the control group, in which they will receive college-planning advice offered by their high school. With the consent of students, researchers will collect college application and enrollment data, as well as text-message usage data and additional qualitative data, and will follow students during their first two years of college. The text messaging campaign will be active during the period extending from when students are in eleventh grade up until they enter college. It will also include in-person counseling for students who request it. Once students enter college, investigators will follow their progress, and will be engaged in assessing whether the text-messaging campaign has positively impacted college application and persistence rates for students who receive it. Through analysis of qualitative data, researchers will also assess how students respond to the text messaging campaigns, and what they find helpful about them.

Products: The main products of this project will be evidence of whether the project’s text messaging campaigns positively impact college enrollment and persistence for low-income students in the pooled sample, across the United States. Peer-reviewed publications will also be produced.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study will include students from all across the United States, from a broad range of demographic backgrounds and urban and rural geographic locations.

Sample: Study participants include 75,000 students in the national sample, and 16,000 students in the Texas sample. The national sample will be representative of PSAT takers in lower-income schools who will be high school juniors in 2014-15. The Texas sample will include students from urban and rural districts serving large proportions of low-income students.

Intervention: Two text-messaging interventions, with one providing additional planning guidance for completing complex college-related activities, will be implemented in this study. In the national sample, equal numbers of students will receive each of the interventions, while students in the Texas sample will receive only the enhanced intervention. Beginning as high school juniors, students in Treatment Group 1 will receive text messages that provide reminders to complete discrete tasks related to college and financial aid (e.g., registering for college entrance exams). Students in Treatment Group 2 (enhanced) will receive these discrete task reminders, and a set of messages designed to encourage follow-through with more complex activities. Across both treatment groups, each text message will include the option to request help from a counselor, either at a call center (the national sample) or school (the Texas sample). Messages will continue through the summer after senior year. The text messages will include reminders and links to register for college entrance exams, apply for financial aid, and complete pre-matriculation tasks (e.g. orientation registration).

Research Design and Methods: The research team will implement a randomized controlled trial (RCT) design in order to estimate causal impacts of receiving a text-messaging intervention on students’ college-going outcomes. Researchers will randomize schools to Treatment Group 1, Treatment Group 2, or the Control Group in the national sample, and Treatment Group 2 or the Control Group in the Texas sample. After pairing schools, in groups of two or three, based on the college enrollment percentage in the high school class of 2013, they will randomly choose two schools from each pair within the national sample, and one school from each pair within the Texas sample to receive the intervention(s). Students will receive college-search and college-going advice as a function of the group to which their school was assigned. The research design will facilitate answering the following research questions:

  1. What impact do text messages that give students information related to college search, application, FAFSA completion, and summer-specific college transition tasks have on whether high school students enroll in college, and which colleges students choose to attend?
  2. Does the impact of text messaging on college-going outcomes differ by student characteristics?
  3. How do students perceive the text messages? Do they find them helpful, and do they believe that the text messages impacted their postsecondary choices and preparation activities?
  4. Are students who receive text messages more likely to seek assistance from a counselor than other students?

Control Condition: Students in the control group will receive the typical level of college-planning services offered by their school.

Key Measures: Investigators will examine the intervention's impact on both short-term process outcomes such as SAT registration, and longer-run outcomes such as college enrollment and persistence. The College Board will provide data on SAT registration and test-taking outcomes, and the National Student Clearinghouse will provide enrollment and persistence data. Researchers will also connect student responses to the text messages with data on completion of college-going tasks, to assess the mechanisms through which messaging influences students’ decisions and actions. Qualitative data will include responses to text-message queries, transcripts from student and counselor focus group panels, and responses to a post-intervention internet-based cell phone survey.

Data Analytic Strategy: With the data resulting from the RCT design, researchers will use regression analysis to assess intervention impacts. A multi-level model of students within schools will include students from the national and Texas samples, and will include student-level covariates to increase the efficiency of estimation. In addition, researchers will use qualitative methods to examine students’ text responses and perceptions of how the text messages influenced their college decisions. Qualitative researchers will code text message replies both inductively and deductively, by searching for emerging themes in student responses and by labeling responses according to hypothesized categories of student message use. They will code transcribed student and counselor focus group texts inductively. Multiple coders will be used for all qualitative data coding, and researchers will continue refining codes until ratings are reliable.