Topics for Texting Students Through the Admissions Cycle

by Rachel Bishop | April 29, 2020
Topics for Texting Students Through the Admissions Cycle

Part three of a three-part series on how admissions pros can adapt to recent changes in the space to recruit students.

Texting Students Through the Admissions Cycle

Gen Z was raised in an era of texting and direct messaging. Even though they use email, teens don't check it on a regular basis. As a result, messages pile up. Many find it hard to tell marketing emails apart from important notifications. Plus, students today apply to seven different schools,[1] and some apply to 20 or more.[2] With that many applications, it’s easy to lose track of requirements.

In 2009, in one of the first text campaigns by a college or university, St. Mary’s University allowed students to sign up for “text message updates.” Admissions staff found there was a large increase in the number of applications, deposits made, and students who enrolled. In fact, prospects who signed up for texts were seven times more likely to apply.[3]

Since then, the use of texting by admissions staff has grown remarkably. The use of nudges and reminders, for example, has proven to increase enrollment, especially by reducing summer melt. But texts are also useful in simply opening lines of communication during the application process, such as reaching out to check in with prospects to see if they have questions. A study by Ruffalo Noel Levitz found that text messages are increasingly influential in student decisions about where to apply and enroll.[4] Almost 80% of high school students would like to receive text messages from schools they are interested in, but only 41% of seniors and 66% of juniors report having received one. [5]

One of the advantages of texting is the almost-instant open rate as compared to email or phone calls. Research shows that people read 98% of all text messages, as compared to just 20% of all emails.[6] While an email is often responded to within 90 minutes of being opened, texts are responded to within 90 seconds.

Getting started with texting students through the admissions cycle

The obvious first place to start when embarking on texting students through the admissions cycle is to obtain students’ mobile numbers. Be sure that online RFI forms ask for a mobile number. Around 79% of juniors and seniors state that they would provide a cell phone number on an RFI form if asked. Plus, many of these students prefer to be contacted by text. In a national study that asked seniors how they wanted to be contacted after completing an RFI form, the students voiced a preference for texting and email more than other formats: [7]

  • 54% Text me
  • 52% Send me an email with links to more information
  • 50% Have an admissions counselor email me
  • 43% Send me a brochure in the mail
  • 25% Call me
  • 7% Connect me with a campus rep via a live chat

What do students want to be texted about?

Keep in mind that students have particular expectations about what topics and how often higher ed institutions should text them. In a 2018 survey of high school juniors and seniors, students said they wanted to be texted with the following types of messages:

Texting Students Through the Admissions Cycle

When do students want to be texted?

Students also hold preferences when it comes to when they receive texts through their admissions journeys. These preferences vary between high school juniors and seniors.

Texting Students Through the Admissions Cycle

The impact of COVID-19 and NACAC changes on texting students through the admissions cycle

In this blog series (see parts one and two), we've addressed how both COVID-19 and changes to the NACAC Code of Ethics are impacting college admissions.

Before coronavirus, the general rule of thumb was to text sometimes, but not too much. However, during stressful, anxious, and unusual times, people want much more information from institutions. At this point, it’s hard to communicate too much. First and foremost, all students want to feel cared about. Enrolled students especially want to hear from professors and expect them to reach out to see how things are going, both in terms of academics and on a personal level. They have questions about their classes, what is required of them, when they might be able to return to campus (even if that is a rapidly changing situation), etc.

Social listening

Recent social listening research conducted by Campus Sonar shows that, when students post anonymously on sites such as Reddit, they share that they are stressed, confused, and not happy with how their institutions have been communicating through COVID-19.[8] In addition, viral word-of-mouth conversation among students has driven misinformation. Do not assume your students have received every email and social media update from you. It’s important to repeat messages several times through several different channels and to text students to alert them when updates are posted.

Other factors

Remember, the NACAC changes mean that currently enrolled students can be recruited away. Students are using their school’s COVID-19 response as a factor in their decision. Many students are rethinking their fall plans right now, some due to financial issues, but others are questioning whether to stay if they feel out of the loop and don’t know what is going on. Clear, frequent communication is critical throughout this crisis.

Likewise, don’t assume that prospects/newly admitted students have read all updates or even know that admissions offices are open and can be contacted with questions. Both admitted and prospective students are going through very uncertain times right now, including issues such as incomplete transcripts, pass/fail grades, etc. Students may not have the same level of access to school counselors during closures. If the admissions calendar moves into the summer, they will likely not have access to a counselor at all. As students struggle with postsecondary decisions and completing required forms later in the year, it is likely that colleges will see increased summer melt. Colleges and universities need to step up and fill the gap with greater communication and support.

Be sure to text applicants to remind them of any important information that they need to know. In addition, send periodic check-ins from admissions counselors who ask how it's going and whether students and their families have any questions. Just like for currently enrolled students, the ability to communicate effectively with and care for the health of prospective students is a determining factor in application and enrollment decisions.[9]

Texting and artificial intelligence (AI) tools

The NACAC changes have created a more or less unending admissions cycle as well as two new target audiences: committed and current students. These students now require increased communication to protect them from being poached. At the same time, adapting to the ever-changing coronavirus crisis requires more, and more frequent, communication. All of this means that recruiting and securing students will likely be more costly, requiring more staff and resources. Colleges will need to think strategically about how they can do more but remain as cost-effective as possible, which will likely mean investing in technology resources that can reduce staff workload. AI and chatbots are excellent for reducing workload and answering general questions that students often ask, such as majors offered, where to find how to apply webpages, where to find the cost of attendance and financial aid information, etc.

Texting Students Through the Admissions Cycle
Learn more about adopting a more human approach to AI in our ebook "Humanizing AI in Higher Education."

While most students report they have used AI bots and found these tools to be helpful, students are still skeptical of automated responses, [10] especially highly impersonal ones that contain only general information and do not directly answer the question asked. While AI can answer frequently asked questions, these tools are only useful up to a point. In the end, students want to have a two-way, interactive conversation with an institution before applying. Gen Z students especially crave authentic, one-on-one communication and the opportunity to establish a relationship with admissions officers. [11]

When using AI tools, the goal should be to move students off of the AI and into live conversations with admissions counselors so that you can extol the unique virtues of your school that pertain to each and every different student.

Learn more

How can you use technology to keep students engaged with your institution and persuade them to remain committed? Download our e-book below for tips, techniques, and case study examples.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.


[1] Ruffalo Noel Levitz & OmniUpdate. (2019). 2019 E-expectations trend report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

[2] Rhodes, D. (2019, December 19). Teenagers don’t use email—colleges do. That’s a problem during college admissions season. Chicago Tribune.

[3] Marshall, D.W. (2010, Fall). Incorporating texting into your communications mix. College & University, 86 (2), 57-62.

[4] Ruffalo Noel Levitz & OmniUpdate. (2019). 2019 E-expectations trend report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

[5] Ruffalo Noel Levitz & OmniUpdate. (2018). 2018 E-expectations trend report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

[6] Pemberton, C. (2016). Tap into the Marketing Power of SMS. Gartner.

[7] Ruffalo Noel Levitz & OmniUpdate. (2019). 2019 E-expectations trend report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

[8] Gross, L. (2020, March 27).  Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing: March 27. CampusSonar.

[9] Art & Science Group. (2020, March). Impact of the covid-19 pandemic on college - going high school seniors. Baltimore, MD: Art and Science Group.

[10] Loveland, E. (2017, Winter). Instant Generation. The Journal of College Admission, 34-38.

[11] ibid

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