Hey, kids, text your way to cheaper college bills

One day in February, a Los Angeles high school student texted a hotline number, worried about paying for college.

“What happens if I don’t have a Social Security number?” the student asked.

It was an exchange that could have been difficult in real life, but over text, the expert on the other end simply asked if the student had an alien registration number. The student, whose name is not provided for privacy reasons, asked where to find the number.

“Are you an undocumented immigrant? What state did you live in?” the volunteer financial aid expert asked.

“Yes I am, I live in California.”

A student in the country illegally, the volunteer said, can’t apply for federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. But, thanks to the California DREAM Act, which provides college money to immigrants here illegally, there was an alternative.

“Skip the FAFSA and fill out the CADA,” the expert texted. “You can’t get federal $$ but you can get $$ from CA if you finish the CADA by March 2.”

That exchange marked the early phases of an experiment to help get more high school students into college by giving them resources where they’re most comfortable: their phones.

And now it’s growing. On Monday, the Get Schooled Foundation, the nonprofit behind the texting hotline, is announcing the program’s expansion at the National College Access Network conference in Orlando, Fla. According to the group, the goal is to partner with 50 college-access organizations across the country to train volunteers. It hopes to reach 100,000 students across the country this year — a ten-fold increase from the 10,000 text exchanges about financial aid the group hosted in 2015.

“Texting is how young people communicate,” says Marie Groark, the director of Get Schooled. The organization is also announcing a $150,000 grant from AT&T’s education initiative called Aspire, and a partnership with NCAN, so that the network's members can help with the texting hotline.

“Our system has not been updated since the 1990s,” said Patti Colston, a spokeswoman for the California Student Aid Commission, the state agency responsible for processing the FAFSA.  “Having technology partners … is imperative.”

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The need is real. According to the White House, across the country, 2 million college students who would have been eligible for Pell Grants simply never applied for aid. Completion is a problem too. The federal government reported a “20 to 30 percentage point gap between the actual completion rates of FAFSA and what students report.” In California, Colston estimates that 80% of eligible students apply for financial aid.

Groark said she was inspired by two things: a campaign called Do Something, which provides a crisis texting hotline for young people on the brink of suicide or facing severe emotional needs; and a bubbling sense of a severe decline of high school students at FAFSA workshops. The Do Something campaign, Groark said, had more than 1 million text messages, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized workshops aren’t the best way to engage millennials.

“Those two things were sticking in my mind alongside each other,” she said. “I thought, wait a minute, if we can put experts next to kids for deep emotional issues, and we’re having a problem connecting kids to experts at workshops, we can use text messaging to help solve the problem.”

There is research to back up her hunch. Researchers at University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education reported in January 2014 that sending high school seniors reminders to finish the FAFSA increased their likelihood of attending two- and four-year universities relative to similar students who didn’t get the texts.

This month, the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team’s annual report tried something similar: The group targeted high school graduates who had been accepted to college, and sent each one of them eight personalized messages reminding them to complete pre-matriculation tasks such as taking placement tests.

As a result, the report found, enrollment increased by 5.7 percentage points, from 66.4% to 72.1%.

So during the last FAFSA season, Groark partnered with Univision to start a college text hotline: Students could text “FAFSA” to 335577 to ask questions in English, or “Dinero” to 335566 to get help in Spanish. About 30 volunteers with backgrounds in financial aid helped take the questions, most of which were answered within an hour. In a two-month period, Californian students and experts exchanged about 7,000 texts; two-thirds were in Spanish. Questions included “where do I get the form?” and “what if my parents live in Mexico?”

Students were asking basic questions about financial aid forms. “FAFSA is hard because families are complicated, and the thought of getting your family sorted out on that form is intimidating,” Groark said.

The expansion will allow Get Schooled to evaluate the effect of the text-messaging program on college-going rates, something the organization hasn’t yet been able to do. The effort is highly focused on California because of the relative abundance of financial aid available: In addition to federal grants, there are state grants of varying degrees for students meeting both financial thresholds and GPA thresholds of 2.0 and 3.0, as well as the CADA form for immigrants in the country illegally.

What if experts text students the wrong information?

“It’s definitely a big concern of ours,” Groark said. Get Schooled tries to prevent that by partnering with organizations that have comprehensive training and auditing text messages to test for accuracy — something that she wouldn’t be able to do for the traditional in-person workshops.

NCAN got on board because of the impact that texting may have, said Elizabeth Morgan, the organization’s director of external affairs.

“We need to look at ways to increase enrollment and persistence in college by orders of magnitude,” she said. “Small efforts, one student here, one student there, are not going to get the job done.”

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at joy.resmovits@latimes.com

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