College-bound freshmen get electronic nudges to help them get ready

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2013 - 10:41 AM
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Roosevelt High School graduate John Fernandez and nudge participant is headed for Bemidji State University in two weeks He said he appreciated the prompts.

Photo: Tom Wallace • twallace@startribune.com,

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John Fernandez admits that he was a little nervous about starting his freshman year this fall at Bemidji State University.

One of the first in his family to go to college, he didn’t realize how much he still needed to do: financial aid, housing, registration.

“I had no idea, no clue,” said Fernandez, a 2013 graduate of Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.

But in June, he signed up for a state-run pilot program called “Summer Nudging.” Every couple of weeks, he’d get a text or e-mail: Filled out your financial aid forms? Are you registered for orientation? Get your transcripts in?

If he had questions, he could call his old high school counselor. It might sound like high-tech nagging. But to Fernandez, 17, it felt like someone had his back. “I found it very useful,” he said. The reminders helped him get his paperwork in on time.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education program debuted this year at two urban high schools, Roosevelt and St. Paul’s Johnson Senior High.

In all, about 100 students signed up for the nudges.

The program is designed mainly for low-income and first-generation college students, who may have no one else to coach them, said Rebecca Schmitz, a college and career counselor with the St. Paul Public Schools who worked on the project.

“Being first-generation students, parents don’t have the knowledge,” she said. “They don’t know the process.”

And once summer starts, she added, students get distracted. “So I can see the advantage of the nudging.”

The program was inspired by a Harvard University study that found that these kinds of text messages were an inexpensive way to reduce the rate of “summer melt” — the tendency of college-bound students to disappear over the summer and not show up for class in the fall.

E-mails and texts

The study, by researchers Benjamin Castleman and Lindsay Page, reported that “summer melt” is especially high among low-income students — often because they “lack access to professional guidance or support during the summer months.” So key tasks, such as filling out paperwork, may slip through the cracks.

With the right kind of text messages, the Harvard researchers found they could “turn one of adolescents’ greatest liabilities — their impulsiveness — into an asset.” In this case, Web links were embedded in the text messages so students could complete the tasks directly from their phones.

In Minnesota, the follow-up required a little more initiative from the students.

Reyna Martinez, an 18-year-old Roosevelt graduate, got two sets of nudges, by e-mail and text, through the summer. “So if I see the same message twice, I know it’s really important,” she said.

The reminders paid off, she said, especially when she had to make her first tuition payment by the August deadline.

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