Digest No. 09 - September 2021

Improving College Persistence through Text Messaging Campaigns

Castleman, B., and K. Meyer. 2020. “Can Text Message Nudges Improve Academic Outcomes in College? Evidence from a West Virginia Initiative.” The Review of Higher Education 43 (4): 1125–1165.


How does access to information influence retention for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds? This study found that how information is communicated to college students is as important as what is being communicated to them. The purpose of this study was to explore access to information and its relationship to persistence and course credit completion among students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Supported by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (WVHEPC) and the Kresge Foundation, the study examined a targeted texting campaign during the 2013–2014 and 2014–2015 academic years. The study looked at students transitioning from high school to college; specifically, the study compared students from 14 high schools that were targeted for the campaign to their peers from 14 high schools that were not part of the campaign. The sample consisted of 3,764 students who “immediately enrolled in a West Virginia two- or four-year institution after graduating from the target and comparison high schools selected by the WVHEPC” (p. 1136).

Students in the campaign received text messages from their high schools as well as from partnering institutions in the West Virginia area. The authors described the intervention in the following way: “Upon matriculating in college, most students received messages approximately one to four times a month on topics ranging from meeting with an academic advisor and the availability of tutoring to financial aid renewal and course registration for the next term” (p. 1135).

Through a careful and rigorous quasi-experimental design, the authors were able to conclude that students who participated in the texting campaign were more likely to persist from their first to second year of college and had a higher first-year course credit completion rate than their peers who did not participate in the texting campaign.


The findings from this study suggest a strong but not causal relationship between participation in the text messaging campaign and first to second year college persistence and first-year course credit completion. Texted students increased their odds of completing their fall semester by a factor of 1.5, their odds of enrolling in their spring semester by a factor of 1.9, and their odds of completing their spring semester by a factor of 1.7. In addition, texted students completed 0.4 more course credits during the fall semester and 0.9 more during the spring semester than students not involved in the texting campaign.


Colleges and universities should get involved with high school students early and often. More and more evidence has emerged that involvement of higher education faculty and staff can improve subsequent behavior in college. The implication of this evidence is that higher education institutions should choose who reaches out to interested high school students and that they will send messages that high school students will see as useful and not overly zealous. Given the many ways students make decisions about college-going and given that traditional pathways from high schools to college are routinely disrupted, it is incumbent on each institution to determine the best ways, and best people, to communicate with incoming students. Results from this study suggest that prospective students will find it reasonable that the institution sends up to four brief messages per month.

Institutional leaders wishing to engage in such campaigns should adhere to two principles. First, jargon should be avoided and demystified where unavoidable. Second, institutional staff and faculty members should show that they genuinely care about the students. As the authors suggest, “students value and trust interactive, personalized messages as a medium for communicating with their institution” (p. 1154). However, messages that are not thoughtfully crafted and well-adapted to a student audience run the risk of alienating the students.

About the Authors

Benjamin Castleman is Newton and Rita Meyers Associate Professor in the Economics of Education at the University of Virginia.

Katharine Meyer is a doctoral candidate in Education Policy Studies at the University of Virginia.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Castleman, B. 2015. The 150-Character Solution: How Text Messages and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lareau, A. 2003. Unequal Childhoods: Race, Class, and Family Life (second edition). Oakland: University of California Press.

Thaler. R., and C. Sunstein. 2009. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. London: Penguin Books.