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.
This fall, she's heading to Minneapolis Community and Technical College, to study law enforcement and business management.
Martinez says the messages were well-timed and not overly intrusive. "It wasn't like a constant everyday texting," she said. "It was every-now-and-then reminders."
The response from students "has just been overwhelming," said, Schmitz, the St. Paul counselor. The messages triggered plenty of phone calls and requests for help, she said, especially early in the summer.
She knows that critics might accuse the program of coddling young adults, who should be embracing their independence.
But in this case, Schmitz said, she would simply point them in the right direction and let them take it from there. "I was just there as fallback support."
Martinez agrees. "I think every person needs some sort of help at some point," she said.
It's too soon to tell what, if any, effect the summer nudges had on the students' long-term plans. So far, the feedback has been encouraging, said Jennifer Fox, who oversees the program at the state's higher education office. But they can't tell how many students acted on the nudges, and how many ignored them. "We haven't found a way to figure that out yet," said Fox.
Now that college classes are about to start, the program is winding down. Schmitz said she may send one last nudge in the next few days. It will have a simple message: "Good luck."