Using text messaging to improve college access for EOC participants

About Text Ed

Text Ed Overview

Applying to college is complicated. But recent research has shown that short, action-oriented text messages can help people focus on critical tasks at the right times. Building on this promising research, Text Ed is an exciting opportunity for select Educational Opportunity Centers to try a text messaging system designed to help their participants more successfully navigate the college enrollment process, and to help staff communicate more easily and efficiently with participants. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and run by expert leaders in higher education, social policy, and behavioral research.

How Text Ed works

Participating EOCs will get access to an easy-to-use online text messaging system. Experts on the project team will design a series of text messages that will be sent to EOC participants automatically at strategic times throughout the year. If participants text back, EOC staff will receive and respond to these messages as needed through the text messaging system.

The content of the text messages will be designed to help guide participants through the procedures of getting into college. Messages will:

  • Provide timely reminders to help participants stay on track with college application steps;
  • Encourage participants to attend specific EOC events;
  • Troubleshoot logistical and life issues, such as childcare, transportation, and balancing school with other aspects of life;
  • Address common concerns about returning to school later in life; and
  • Facilitate efficient communication between EOC staff and participants.

Text Ed applies the latest research from behavioral science

Traditional economic theory assumes that people are perfectly able to access and process relevant information to make "rational" decisions, and flawlessly able to know and express what they want. In reality, we don't act 100% rationally all of the time; our behaviors are affected by the people around us, how much stress we're under, and our past experiences. Behavioral science explores how and why people make decisions and acknowledges the ways that our psychological quirks and context really matter. Text Ed starts from the place of recognizing how people actually behave rather than how we want them to behave. Drawing on the achievements of previous text-based behavioral science interventions, the Text Ed research team has crafted customized text messages to be delivered to EOC participants at salient times in their college-going process, in order to help keep them on the path to college.

About the Research

Project Goals

As part of the demonstration, a rigorous study will examine whether the text messages increase FASFA completion and college enrollment among EOC participants. The findings will be useful to EOCs and to the broader TRIO community interested in program improvement.

What Participation Involves

EOCs participating in the demonstration want to enhance their participant advising through text messaging. EOC staff arecollaborating with the project team to share information about the EOC's services and events so that the text message content is well-aligned with the EOC's other programming and supports. EOC staff are also partnering with the project team to ensure that necessary background data is collected from participants at intake (mostly what they already provide), and that participants eligible for the study are given an opportunity take part in the study. Participants who agree to join the study will be assigned through a simple lottery to either receive the support typically provided by the EOC, or to receive the text messages in addition to the support typically provided. EOC staff will be trained on how to use the text message system so that they can easily respond to messages online. The project team will be there every step of the way, providing training, tools, and ongoing support throughout the demonstration.

Project Timeline

Participating EOCs have been partnering with the project team throughout the summer and fall of 2017 to get ready to start using the text messaging system in spring 2018. EOCs will use the text messaging system through summer 2020. In 2022, the project team will publish a final report and practitioner guide.

Project Team

Alexander Mayer
Principal Investigator
Project Director

Dr. Mayer works in MDRC's postsecondary education policy area. He directs projects, leads the design of evaluations and the analysis of student outcomes, and helps with outreach to policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders in higher education. Alex is currently MDRC's project director for the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness, a national center to study developmental (remedial) education, funded by the Institute for Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. He was previously project director for the evaluation of the Achieving the Dream initiative. He is currently a lead researcher on the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration, Aid Like A Paycheck, the New Mathways Project, a national survey of two- and four- year colleges, and the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency project sponsored by the Administration for Families and Children of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He holds a BS with double majors in physics and mathematics from the College of William and Mary and a PhD in political science from the University of California, Davis.

Lindsay Page
Co-Principal Investigator
Intervention Design Lead

Dr. Page is an assistant professor of research methodology at the School of Education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work focuses on quantitative methods and their application to questions regarding the effectiveness of educational policies and programs across the pre-school to postsecondary spectrum. Much of her recent work has focused on implementing large-scale randomized trials to investigate potential solutions to "summer melt," the phenomenon that college-intending students fail to transition successfully from high school to college. Page's research has been published in a variety of academic journals, and has been covered by outlets such as Morning Edition and Marketplace on National Public Radio and in the L.A. Times, among others. She holds a doctorate in quantitative policy analysis from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, master's degrees in statistics and in education policy from Harvard, and a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College.

Jacklyn Willard
Project Manager
Operations Team

Willard joined MDRC in 2011 and currently works in both the K-12 and higher education policy areas. She is leading the site recruitment effort for the Evaluation of Academic Language Interventions, a school-level random assignment study funded by the U.S. Department of Education that will involve at least 70 schools in 9 to 12 school districts. She also plays a lead role on the Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential project, an initiative funded by the Social Innovation Fund that is designed to increase employment and educational opportunities for disconnected young people and young adults who are homeless or who have been involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Willard is also a site liaison and lead qualitative researcher on the Innovative Professional Development study, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is focused on improving teacher professional development systems. Willard graduated with honors from the University of California-Berkeley and received her master's degree in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Elena Serna-Wallender
Operations Lead

Serna-Wallender plays a variety of roles in projects within the K-12 and postsecondary education policy areas. She serves as a project manager, leads site recruitment and study start-up efforts, provides strategic technical assistance to programs, and conducts qualitative research activities. Before joining MDRC, Serna-Wallender was a caseworker for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas, where she supported a caseload of over one hundred mentorship pairs and managed the agency's participation in a large-scale random assignment study. Serna-Wallender has a master's degree in Public Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, as well as a bachelor's degree in Urban Studies from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

David Navarro

David Navarro
Operations Team

Navarro, a research associate in MDRC’s California office, has over 31 years of experience as an information services and operations liaison for over 60 sites, covering 21 evaluations and demonstrations of innovative programs to help low-income people become self-sufficient. In this capacity he has helped recruit prospective sites for these evaluations, and devised, implemented, and monitored the studies’ research procedures, especially those using random assignment-based designs. Navarro also bears responsibility for drafting and overseeing the contracts and interagency agreements with local and state government agencies that gain MDRC access to the administrative data needed for its evaluations. Navarro is currently the operations leader for the KentuckianaWorks, EmployIndy, and Muskegon Works! sites of the Workforce Investment Act Adult Services and Dislocated Workers Evaluation, a national study funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. He is also the operations leader for the San Francisco sites of the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration, another Department of Labor initiative, and the Subsidized Transitional Employment Demonstration, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services evaluation. In addition, he is the operations leader for the four Texas sites and two California sites in the national evaluation of the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, a voluntary case management and asset-building program that provides Section 8 voucher recipients with incentives to work. He is a data-acquisition specialist for the 10 states participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training Evaluation, a national study of innovative education and training programs for SNAP recipients. He is also the operations lead for 5 of the 18 Education Opportunity Centers that are participating in the Text Ed Demonstration Project, which will develop and test a strategic text-messaging intervention in these centers and is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Navarro has a master’s degree in history from San Jose State University.

Rashida Welbeck

Rashida Welbeck
Operations Team

Welbeck’s work at MDRC over the last nine years has spanned research site development, research operations, project management, and implementation data collection and analysis for projects in both K-12 and postsecondary education. She is currently the project manager and leads research operations for the evaluation of the University System of Georgia’s African-American Male Initiative at five open and broad-access institutions. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences and is part of the College Completion Network. Welbeck also provides operational support to the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness’s “Evaluation of Alternative Placement Systems and Student Outcomes,” and has recently also worked on the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation-funded Multiple Measures Assessment Scan. While at MDRC, she earned a master’s degree in urban policy and management from The New School with a concentration in social policy. Before joining MDRC, Welbeck earned her bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University in international politics.

Andrea Vasquez
Operations Team

Vasquez graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Financial Economics from Columbia University. She previously worked in Boston as an Innovation Strategist for Commonwealth, designing and testing innovative products and services to help financially vulnerable Americans achieve financial security. At MDRC, she works as a Research Assistant in the postsecondary education policy area.

Chase Johnson
Operations Team

Johnson graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He previously served as a Presidential Scholar at University of North Carolina System office. At MDRC, he works as a Research Assistant in the postsecondary educatioon policy area.


How will participation in this project benefit each EOC's participants?

Participants who join the project will have the opportunity to get timely, relevant and research-based advising support through text messages, in addition to the support that all participants typically receive - with the goal of improving their ability to successfully complete college enrollment steps.

How will participating in Text Ed benefit the participating EOCs?

During the demonstration, EOCs and their staff will receive free software, training, and assistance to implement an innovative approach to communicating with their participants through customized, action-oriented text messaging. Having messages go out automatically can free up staff to focus on other important aspects of their work.

How will the text messaging system work?

Participating EOCs will get access to an online text messaging system that staff can access on their computers. Experts on the project team will design a series of text messages that will go out to EOC participants automatically at strategic times throughout the year. If participants text back, EOC staff will receive and respond to these messages as needed, using the text messaging system. Staff won't need to give out their personal phone numbers or have to use cell phones for typing.

Will the EOCs incur additional costs for participating?

EOCs that participate in this study will not incur any financial costs.

Which participants are eligible to participate in the project, and are they required to do so?

The demonstration is designed for new EOC participants who have a high school diploma or equivalent and wish to enroll in college. These participants will be given the choice to join the project; if they choose not to, they will receive the typical supports and services that the EOC offers.

Which EOC participants will receive text messages?

Participants who join the project will go through a simple lottery to determine which type of support they will receive. Roughly half of these participants will receive the support typically provided by the EOC, and the other half will receive the support typically provided, plus the text messages. Using a lottery allows the project team to test whether the text messages improve participants' outcomes.

What participant data will the project team require from EOCs that join Text Ed?

The study will require data that we believe many EOCs already collect about their participants, such as their cell phone number, date of birth, indication of high school diploma or equivalent, where they are in the college-going process (e.g., FAFSA filing, selection of an intended postsecondary institution), and relevant life circumstances (e.g., children in the home for whom child care would be needed). The study team will also seek the Social Security Number of each participant who joins the study. EOCs will collect these data from these participants at intake and provide them to the project team a few times a month, either by uploading documents to a secure website, or by using pre-paid, pre-addressed mailing envelopes provided by the team.

Will other data be collected?

The project team will periodically obtain study participants' enrollment status from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), financial aid data from the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Office, and text messaging records from the text messaging provider. EOC staff will have the opportunity to regularly update relevant information, as available, about participants who are receiving texts, using a simple electronic form provided by the project team.

How will the project team protect the privacy of participating EOCs' participants and staff?

Protecting every EOC's participants' privacy is very important to us. Reports about this study will summarize findings across study participants and will not associate responses with any specific EOC sites or individuals. We will never share information that identifies individual participants or staff with anyone outside the project team, except as required by law (for example, if we learn that keeping information confidential would put someone in danger). For all data collection activities, data will only be obtained for participants who agree to join the study and will always be transmitted and stored securely.

What outcomes will the study examine, and how will the results be shared?

The study will examine the impact of the text messaging program on EOC participants' college enrollment and FAFSA completion. The results will be published in a final report freely available to the public and will be provided to participating EOCs. The project team will also produce a practitioner guide that describes the text message system and how to implement it, which will also be publicly published and shared.

What criteria were used to select EOCs to participate in Text Ed?

EOCs must not already have a substantively similar text messaging system in place, must demonstrate capacity to implement the text messaging system well, and must be willing to have their participants engage in a lottery-based study. The project team has also proactively included EOCs from different geographic regions and of different institution types.

Who can I contact if I have questions?

FAQs and other project information will be regularly updated on the Text Ed project website. If you'd like to contact someone from the project team directly, please email or call 1-800-221-3165 x4543.