a student smiling at their cell phone

5 Ways Conversational Text Messaging Supports Student Retention

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could blame the phenomenon of students stopping out of college on a single factor? That would make it so easy to boost retention! Just develop a solution, deploy it and — boom — you’d empower all students to persist through to the next semester.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Students are complex and so too, are the challenges they face in staying enrolled. The key, then, is to understand those challenges so you can direct each learner to the right resources. With continued communication, through the right channel, you can help each student continually leap over barriers that are unique to them. You can deploy (and continually adjust) myriad solutions to your myriad students. 

Here’s how two-way conversational text messaging can spearhead your efforts, enabling you to connect with each learner and drive each of your strategies to boost retention. 

1. Uncover roadblocks

The power of two-way conversational text messaging lies in the back-and-forth. Students can reply — at their own time and pace — with questions and concerns. 

By asking the right questions, you can uncover a roadblock that may, if left uncleared, prevent a student from persisting. If, for example, a text recipient tells you that they can no longer afford classes, ask why. Perhaps they have new childcare expenses, lost their part-time job or were unprepared for the high costs of textbooks.

Understanding their challenge(s) will allow you to customize your advice and support. For example, rather than merely referring the student to a financial aid advisor, you can direct them to specific forms, suggest a scholarship program or encourage them to apply for a campus job. 

An example of this process in action comes from Brian Kathman, founder of Modern Campus Signal Vine, in writing for Forbes

“When we know 'the real why,' we can point each student to the resource that best supports them. One of the more interesting exchanges that I have heard was with a student who wasn’t coming back for money reasons. But when told to 'tell me more,' she said, 'I lost my car insurance, and I can’t make it to campus.' The advisor followed up with, 'You are eligible to take classes online,' and the student responded, 'I don’t think my financial aid covers online classes.' The advisor was able to clarify the heart of the matter: 'Yes, online classes are covered by financial aid, and I can help you get registered, and we can figure out how to get you supported.'

The exchange Kathman recaps was done all through texting and took less than 20 minutes! Without it, the students may not have stayed enrolled.

2. Personalize and target your messaging

The most engaging text messages aren’t generic; they’re relevant to a student’s specific needs and circumstances. 

Fortunately, with the right texting platform, personalization is easy! You can segment your audience and target the right student demographics, at the right time. For example, rather than telling all students “course registration begins soon”, you can narrow down the timing. Your text can say “course registration for second-year business majors opens in 4 days—Tuesday 5/21 at 9 am. Here’s the link to register 🔗[link].” 

By texting each student the exact registration day and time that applies to them, you’ll cut through the noise. You’ll save each student the time and effort of having to search a website or email to find the information they need. 

Personalization can not only help students feel more valued by your institution, but it can also reduce confusion and prompt them to take the right actions to stay enrolled. 

3. Remind students to complete important tasks

No one likes nagging. Whether it’s through email or text, a long message demanding a student complete a dozen tasks is more likely to lead to an eye roll than a response.  

That’s why you should trade nagging for nudging. As a communications term, nudging is broadly defined as “coaxing or gently encouraging someone to do something.” In higher ed, nudging helps students move through their journey within a college or university.

The graphic below illustrates the concept.

Graphic showing that nagging is an ineffective strategy is which the sender writes "register" five times in a row and the student reads it but never responds. This is compared to effective nudging in which the sender suggests precise steps and the student respond positively each time, eventually registering.

With texting, you can gently guide a student to complete a single task and, once they’ve confirmed completion, nudge them toward the appropriate next step. It’s a smart way to avoid writing a dreaded 20-point checklist email.

And nudging gets results. In research on reducing Summer Melt, an overwhelming majority of students who received texts (86%) said that texts have prompted them to successfully complete a task.


4. Build relationships

Students are more likely to use campus support services when they already know and trusts the office’s staff. 

Texting can create such knowledge and trust! By building relationships over text, you can help students feel comfortable — and even excited —to stop by your office, attend events you host and interact in other meaningful ways. 

Texting is a savvy way to extend your reach and warm students up to your services, without having to stop by every residence hall or call every commuter student. 

Consider this: would you prefer to attend an event hosted by The Office of Who Knows What, or one planned by Stephanie, the friendly advisor you’ve gotten to know right from your phone? We bet you and your students would pick the latter. 

5. Encourage engagement

As we previously explored, participation in co-curricular experiences can hugely benefit retention. 

Hartford Community College found that students who attend campus co-curricular events are 53.7% more likely to persist through to the next academic year than their non-engaged peers. Plus, first-year Arkansas Tech University students who record at least one hour of community or volunteer service have a 94% retention rate — 22 percentage points higher than their peers who didn’t record any such hours. 

Texting can help you amplify upcoming engagement opportunities and, thus, boost retention. You can instantly text thousands of your students about upcoming events, segmented by demographic to ensure relevancy. Additionally, you can guide students through the process of registering a new student organization, enhancing their co-curricular transcript or voting in a Student Government Association election. You can also answer common — or not-so-common — questions about intramural sports, first-year programming or alternative spring break. 

With texting, you can engage students who might not respond to emails, take note of campus fliers or reply to social media events.

Ready to design your own texting campaign?

Check out our free guide.  You'll find advice on scheduling your texts and designing a texting cadence, along with example messages. 


A Higher Ed Guide for Designing Text Messaging Campaigns

How Modern Colleges and Universities Can Design & Send Engaging Text Messages That Get Prospective, Current & Alumni Students to Take Action

Download Now

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Student Experience

Last updated: November 9, 2022


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