Madison, Wis.—As many as 40% of high school graduates from low-income households who have been accepted into college fail to enroll in the fall. The reason? Students must complete a series of crucial tasks over the summer, from finalizing financial aid to arranging campus housing. These tasks can be overwhelming, especially without the support of the school counselors who helped them get that far. This phenomenon, known as “summer melt,” is most prevalent among students who are first in their family to go to college.
Last fall, Ascendium Education Group launched a $630,000 grant project aimed at helping 13 Wisconsin public school districts combat summer melt using a tool most students are very familiar with: text messaging. The Text Steps project provides start-up funding and other support the districts need to launch text “nudging” programs designed to help students meet critical deadlines and complete final steps on the path to college. Research by Dr. Ben Castleman of the University of Virginia and others over more than a decade has proven this approach to be effective at reducing the number of students who “melt” away over the summer.
After spending several months preparing for launch, learning the texting platform and recruiting students, districts started sending messages in June. Counselors in each district send participating students about one text per week. Students may respond with questions, and conversations can ensue as they work through final preparations for college. Counselors coordinating the program in their districts say that Text Steps is helping them stay connected to their students and they’ve been able to quickly answer critical questions.
“I am having a great time with this program,” said Jill Savick, a high school counselor and Text Steps coordinator for the St. Francis School District. “The communication with students is fast and efficient. All of the relationship building that I have done with them has paid off as students are responding to the texts. I can’t wait to use this with our seniors next year.”
Counselors say connecting with students on their preferred platform is a key to spurring them into prompt action.
“Most high school students live on their phones,” said Joe O’Brien, Text Steps coordinator for the Sheboygan Area School District. “Emails tend to get lost, and text messaging has proven to be the most effective way to communicate with students. This allows for the graduates to read the text when they can and respond when they can. There are 140 students currently receiving text messages from us, and we are actively engaging with around 70% of them.”
The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) worked with Ascendium to pilot the Text Steps concept in 2015, and has since continued the texting project on its own. The pilot helped Ascendium learn not only about the texting platform, but also about the system changes and school resources necessary to implement a texting program, including staffing and training protocols. Ascendium provides ongoing technical assistance to each district based on knowledge gained through the pilot project, and districts gain access to a learning community with which to share best practices and strategies for overcoming challenges that arise.
“MMSD is a perfect example of what we hope happens with the 13 school districts that are participating this year,” said Amy Kerwin, Ascendium Vice President–Education Philanthropy. “They saw enough value in the program to warrant continuing it beyond our period of support. Text Steps provides a proven process and knowledge base that can help these districts create a successful, sustainable program that will help more students from low-income backgrounds reach the academic goals most important to them.”
That knowledge has informed the development of a learning community to help the 13 districts share best practices and overcome challenges.
The districts participating in Text Steps are:
- Fort Atkinson
- Green Bay
- La Crosse
- St. Francis
- South Milwaukee
- West Allis–West Milwaukee
- Wisconsin Rapids
If you would like to connect with a counselor or student in one of these communities, we can help. Contact Dana Spychalla.
For more information about Ascendium’s Text Steps project and the participating school districts, visit our Text Steps grant page.