Dissertation Fellow Researches Text Message Reminders and Financial Aid

Ben_Castleman-533x4002013 Dissertation Fellowship recipient Ben Castleman was recently featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education for a study he co-authored on text message reminders for college students utilizing government financial aid. Inside Higher Ed and St. Louis Public Radio also picked up the story.

The article cites the study by Castleman and University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of education Lindsay Page, in which students were encouraged to reapply for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) during summer break. Without any sort of “nudge” from an adviser, the rate of students who return to school and graduate is predictably low—even if the student is doing well.

Castleman, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, received a fellowship to complete his doctorate in education in 2013 from Harvard University. He previously earned a bachelor of arts in 2000 from Brown University.

Hear from Ben below about his interesting new research and the potential that it may hold for college-going students.

Congratulations on being featured in The Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed concerning your study. What prompted this research and your collaboration with Ms. Page?

This research emerged out of earlier texting work we did to inform college-intending high school graduates of tasks they needed to complete in order to matriculate in college. Students face a host of complicated financial and procedural tasks during the summer after high school that they need to complete in order to enroll, yet typically lack access to professional assistance from their high school or college. We’ve conducted texting interventions in twelve districts across four states and two summers, and have consistently found that providing students with personalized information about tasks they need to complete in order to enroll and making it easy for them to connect to individualized college advising when they need help can have a substantial impact on whether students are able to realize their college plans. Unfortunately the complexity that students face in the college and financial aid application process does not end once students get to campus. Specific to financial aid, the focus of the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed stories, students may not realize they need to re-apply for aid each to maintain their grants and loans; not know where to turn for help on campus to complete the federal financial aid application (FAFSA); or struggle to set aside time to do the FAFSA on top of everything else they have going on academically, occupationally, and socially. As with the summer texting work, we find that providing students with personalized encouragement to renew their FAFSA and access to individualized help with the financial aid application can substantially increase the share of community college freshmen that successfully return for sophomore year.

Have you used Signal Vine or other text message platforms in the past? If so, what was your role at that time?

The summer melt texting campaign I describe above was the first time that I used an automated texting platform to deliver personalized texts to a large volume of students. But the inspiration for this work really came five years earlier, when I designed the first summer melt pilot intervention in Providence, RI. We had two school counselors reaching out to students to offer help completing required college tasks. At the start of summer, counselors were primarily reaching out to students via phone and email, but there were a bunch of students who weren’t responding. Then one of the counselors starting texting students, and response rates jumped. Students who hadn’t answered multiple phone calls or emails were responding basically as soon as the counselor hit send. We knew we were on to something at that point.

Results show a significant effect in this experiment on community college students but not for those at four-year colleges. Are these students simply reapplying for financial aid like they should be?

That’s a great question, and one for which we don’t have a definitive answer. In our study almost 90 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges and universities were persisting in the absence of the text messages, so at the most basic level there wasn’t as much of a margin to influence in order to increase persistence. One question is how representative these students—or the colleges and universities they attended—are of four-year college freshmen in different parts of the country. Nationally, sophomore persistence rates for four-year freshmen tend to be quite a bit lower. So we think it’s an open question about whether personalized text reminders to renew financial aid are impactful for freshmen at four-year institutions. That’s certainly something we plan to investigate in future studies.

Have you begun phase two of this research in conjunction with Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s Sara Goldrick-Rab?

We’ve begun the initial design and planning for this intervention, and Sara has been doing the heavy lifting around securing funding for the project and recruiting colleges and universities (both four-year and two-year) to participate. Our hope is to have the intervention in the field during the 2015 spring semester.

How has your experience with financial aid—especially as a graduate student with a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Dissertation Fellowship—affected the way you view the subject as a student, researcher and professor?

Very much so. I was incredibly fortunate throughout my doctoral program to receive generous support, initially from Harvard and then from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education. I am married with two young kids, and without this support I would not have been able to devote nearly as much time to advancing my research or influencing the development of institutional, state, and federal policy. I know first-hand how important it is to have financial support so that students can devote their full attention to their studies, rather than worry about how to make ends meet or support their families. This certainly has a large influence on the direction of the work that I pursue.

What non-financial benefits of a scholarship or fellowship did you receive that propelled your education? 

The most important benefit I gained during my graduate fellowship was the mentoring I received from faculty—most of all my advisor Bridget Terry Long, but also a wide range of other faculty members—who helped be develop my analytic skills; facilitated access to data that I could use in my research; and even provided funding to support early experimental work that I was undertaking. I would not have been able to achieve a tenth of what I have professionally with their generosity and support. Their dedication to mentorship guides how I try to work with my students now that I’m on the faculty at UVA.

Lastly, why do you do what you do? What drives you?

The most formative experience of my life as it relates to my research was being a high school teacher. I taught at an innovative high school in Providence, RI, and had the privilege of working with a number of smart, tenacious, and determined students. I was incredibly proud of what they achieved in high school, and as of the end of senior year we were all very excited for the horizons ahead of them. All of my students had gotten into college at this point, many with partial or full scholarships, and almost all of them were planning to enroll directly after high school. Unfortunately, many of them struggled to get to college in the first place or to succeed once they were there. The challenges they encountered had nothing to do with their lack of capacity for college success or for lack of drive to succeed. Instead, they encountered financial hurdles they couldn’t overcome—like not being able to pay the difference between their financial aid packages and the cost of attendance at their college—or they had a hard time adjusting to college cultures that were in most cases very different than the communities they had grown up in. The experience of seeing students who I knew so well and had such respect for struggle to succeed in postsecondary education has motivated my research interest in developing solutions to help more low-income and first-generation students access and succeed in college.