Last spring, when the institutional effectiveness team at Moorpark College conducted student surveys and focus groups as well as data analysis to evaluate the efficacy of student communication, an issue with volume became clear.
“Our students were overwhelmed by the number of emails they received each week and were eager to connect more with counselors, instructors and student support professionals in a one-on-one capacity,” says Jamie Whittington-Studer, a communication research consultant at Moorpark, one of three colleges in California’s Ventura County Community College District.
The communications and marketing office began working with institutional research to launch a series of two-way text messaging pilot programs this past fall.
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The goals: Broadly, the project team sought to evaluate the use of texting as a way of communicating with students, measuring the impact on key metrics such as matriculation, retention and academic success. That meant determining which departments would benefit most from a text messaging program, coming up with the right messaging and finding a user-friendly platform to support needs.
Tech selection: When considering text messaging platforms, Whittington-Studer and colleagues learned they could text large groups of students simultaneously, send targeting messages to specific student populations, forward conversations to specialists in different departments and share images, files and links via text. “We ended up partnering with a two-way texting vendor who caters to the higher education sector and works with several other community colleges in our state,” she says.
Next steps: The team scheduled meetings with departments on campus that provide high-touch support to students, including academic counseling, financial aid, student services, outreach, special population support services and the tutoring center. Discussions involved department needs, communication objectives and staffing capabilities.
Text test in action: Academic counseling administrators sought a way to better connect with a group of students who had recently been placed on academic notice (formerly known as academic probation). The goal became encouraging students to set up an appointment with a counselor to discuss the necessary steps to restore their academic standing. “All previous outreach attempts through traditional communication methods—such as email, phone calls and student portal messages—had been unsuccessful,” says Whittington-Studer.
For the pilot, three counseling support specialists reached out to 64 students via text message over a 48-hour period, offering to help them set up an appointment and answer any questions about their academic standing.
Nearly one in three students responded to the text within 48 hours, and nine in 10 of those students successfully booked an appointment with a counselor to complete the academic-notice workshop and begin steps to restore their academic status.
Additional campaigns: The Moorpark Outreach Center tried texting prospective students the same day they applied to provide guidance about onboarding and to offer support (via text or phone) to increase matriculation. Students who received the text were 6.3 percentage points more likely to successfully enroll at Moorpark compared to those who did not.
The financial aid office, meanwhile, decided to reach out to students who were eligible for increased Cal Grant funding but did not submit the necessary documentation—students for whom previous outreach had not worked. “I see you might be eligible for more Cal Grant aid based on your status. If you’d like to learn more about increasing your aid, please feel free to text me back,” the message read in part. More than half of the students responded to the text, and all were able to successfully submit the documentation necessary for increasing their Cal Grant funding.
Texting has also been used effectively by the extended opportunity programs and services department to encourage students to sign up for classes during their priority registration period, and by the academic counseling office to increase the number of students who registered early for the spring 2023 semester.
In the latter campaign, about one in four students who received the text were registered for classes within a week, compared to about 15 percent of those who did not receive the text. Results for Hispanic students were especially positive, which led to a realization that receiving academic counseling assistance via text may help close equity gaps between white and Hispanic students in terms of enrollment and persistence.
Lessons learned: “There is a definite learning curve when it comes to organizing these efforts; you have to introduce the resource in a way that helps the various departments maintain levels of efficiency and ease of communication with students,” says Whittington-Studer, adding that the pilot programs allowed for randomized controlled experiments. “Our biggest piece of advice to any institution looking to expand their use of two-way text is to pair your usage with a research design that will allow you to observe the impact of this resource on your students’ success.”
She also advises a casual, conversational and friendly tone in the messaging (for Moorpark, that includes the use of emojis and exclamation points). The focus groups had revealed students felt emails were “often long-winded and full of academic jargon that make them hard to read,” Whittington-Studer shares. “We’ve taken the opposite approach with our text communications and have seen significant improvements in student engagement rates.”
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