New Study Raises Questions About Benefits of Text Messaging to Increase College Enrollment Among Students from Low-Income Backgrounds

New Study Raises Questions About Benefits of Text Messaging to Increase College Enrollment Among Students from Low-Income Backgrounds

Feb 24, 2021
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Despite the promise of text-based messaging as a behavioral nudge strategy, a new study illustrates the limitations of this approach in helping low-income and first-generation students enroll and persist in college. At the same time, it adds to the body of evidence testing new, low-cost ways of supporting college completion for this population.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a U.S. Department of Education college preparation program that is available to states and school districts. The study evaluated the efficacy of sending GEAR UP students 37 text messages customized to their college and including the option to communicate with an advisor. Although the messaging did not increase enrollment or persistence, the evaluation provides some guidance on messaging strategies that may be more effective.


  • Text messages did not impact enrollment or persistence. Students who received text messages were no more likely to enroll or persist in college than other students were. The messaging did not increase college enrollment in the fall after high school graduation or through the first year and into a second year of college.
  • Students may need more specific information. The information students and advisors shared may have been among the factors that limited its effectiveness. A broad caseload may have made it difficult for advisors to provide additional college-specific guidance that might have proved more beneficial.
  • Other support may eclipse the benefits of behavioral nudges. GEAR UP students may already have received supports that students in other texting studies showing more promise did not receive. As a result, changes in behavior in the GEAR UP students were less notable.

“These findings contribute to our growing understanding of the promise and limitations of text messaging as a mechanism for supporting students,” said Alina Martinez, co-investigator from Mathematica who worked with the team from Abt Associates that conducted the study.

For the study, approximately 4,800 college-intending seniors in low-income, high-need GEAR UP high schools across the country were randomly divided into two groups: one received their regular GEAR UP supports in the summer before and during their first year of college, and the other group received these regular supports along with the text messages. The study compared the experiences and college enrollment patterns of the two groups of students to determine the effectiveness of the transition messaging.

Read the full study.