The best way to engage college students? Text them.


Prospective students often ignore the heap of college recruitment letters, emails, brochures and phone calls that bombard them throughout the year. And with teenagers becoming ever more dependent on their devices, their attention to those dated recruitment tactics is only declining.

Admissions offices have taken note.

“It was really made clear to us that we needed to find a different mode of communication,” said Meghan Schmidbauer, assistant dean of admissions at Owens Community College in Ohio.

Recruiters at Owens — and at colleges and universities nationwide — are pivoting to meet students where they are: on their cell phones. “It’s in their hand. It’s timely. It’s what they’re used to,” Schmidbauer told EdScoop.

Owens’ admissions representatives now communicate with prospective students on a two-way, personalized text messaging platform from Signal Vine, a young tech company based just outside Washington, D.C. (It has no connection to Open Whisper Systems’ popular Signal messaging app or the now-defunct Vine video app.)

Signal Vine has about 200 clients in higher education, including Brigham Young University, University of New Mexico and Youngstown State University. Some clients use the messaging platform to send financial aid updates and reminders, schedule academic advising appointments and address other department-specific needs.

There’s no app to download — messages arrive through all the usual apps — and users can opt out of receiving information. The colleges generally acquire mobile phone numbers directly from prospective students at events and on applications.

The goal is to send students information via a format that many use almost constantly.

“Our folks are having a conversation” with students, Schmidbauer said. “We’re able to provide instant, real-time communication. It’s more personal. … In my opinion, it’s the most personal form of technological communication that we have.”

And it seems to be working.

Forget post cards, phone calls, television commercials and radio ads — methods that are comparable to “throwing spaghetti at the wall,” Schmidbauer said. Texting generates the highest rate of student engagement.

During some of their messaging campaigns, nearly 35 percent of students will respond to at least one text. That’s about three or four times the response rate of the average email campaign, Schmidbauer said.

Email is tricky, she said, because if students don’t respond, the sender wonders if their message went to spam or if the student was away on vacation. Not to mention admissions reps feel they have to include a complete, thorough message in case the student doesn’t follow up for more details, as is often the case.

With texting, on the other hand, “there are no boundaries,” she said, and the ease and personalization of it lends to higher response rates.

“The messages they’re getting are not mass messages. It’s tailored for individual students,” Brian Kathman, CEO of Signal Vine, said in an interview. It’s as if the “staff person pulled their phone out of their pocket and sent that message. To students, it looks and feels like it’s a real, personal message.”

In reality, admissions representatives at Owens type and send the messages from their computers. And they use student data to offer suggestions, reminders and relevant questions.

If a student has started a college application but hasn’t added ACT/SAT scores yet, the admissions office can send a text addressing them by name and introducing themselves before saying they noticed those documents were missing.

“We know what a perfect text message looks like because we have a lot of experience,” Kathman said, adding that a call to action or a deadline often helps improve response rates. “[Having] information that makes it personal or relevant really resonates with students.”

The 3-year-old company touts impressive client results. On average, partner colleges that use Signal Vine for recruitment have seen an 11 percent increase in matriculation rates. Students who have access to an academic adviser through Signal Vine are 20 percent more likely to continue their postsecondary education between freshman and sophomore years. And students who receive text updates and nudges about their loans from the financial aid office end up borrowing about 25 percent less than those who don’t.

“We have no problem using the texting medium to get students to the next step,” Schmidbauer said. “It has been the most well received form of communication we’ve done.”