A college education is still one of the best predictors of financial stability, but access to that education is becoming more and more limited. A child born into a low-income family has only a nine percent chance of getting a college education[i], which means she is highly likely to continue living near the poverty line in her adulthood.

The New York Times recently reported on a pair of experiments that University of Virginia professor Benjamin L. Castleman and University of Pittsburgh professor Lindsay C. Page published in 2014. Castleman and Page experimented with some unorthodox “nudges” – ways to encourage low-income high schoolers who want to go to college to follow through on their applications. 

The high school experiment took two forms – a series of 10 automatic and personalized text message reminders about college application requirements; and a group of peer mentors providing summer outreach and support. If students responded to a text, they would automatically get connected to their assigned counselor for one-on-one assistance.

Both interventions were most helpful for students who had less access to college-planning resources, or weren’t as far along with their college planning as their peers upon high school graduation. “The peer mentor intervention increased four-year college enrollment by 4.5 percentage points overall,” and students who received texts were seven percentage points more likely to enroll.[ii] The programs were also cost-effective: they only cost about seven dollars per student.

The authors performed a similar experiment to encourage low-income students to stay in college once they get there. This time, they sent text messages to students providing them with financial aid information, and reminding them about deadlines and requirements. These texts were extremely helpful for community college freshmen, who were nearly 12 percentage points more likely to continue to their sophomore year if they received texts.[iii] They weren’t as effective for four-year college students, who generally have higher persistence rates. Again, this program was cost-effective, costing about five dollars per student.

Text messages aren’t going to solve education disparities on their own. But it’s crucial that lawmakers and advocates start to investigate modern, innovative, and cost-effective solutions, rather than relying on outdated and costly programs.


[i] Bailey, Martha J. and Dynarski, Susan M. (December 2011). Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion. National Bureau of Economic Research. Available at http://users.nber.org/~dynarski/Bailey_Dynarski.pdf

[ii] Castleman, Benjamin L. and Page, Lindsay C. (January 2014). “Working Paper: Summer Nudging: Can Personalized Text Messages and Peer Mentor Outreach Increase College Going Among Low-Income High School Graduates?” Available at http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/9_Castleman_SummerTextMessages.pdf

[iii] Castleman, Benjamin L. and Page, Lindsay C. (December 2014). “Working Paper: Freshman Year Financial Aid Nudges: An Experiment to Increase FAFSA Renewal and College Persistence.” Available at http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/29_Freshman_Year_Financial_Aid_Nudges.pdf