Louis Medina

Louis Medina 

In December, hundreds of graduating Kern County high school seniors with college aspirations will begin applying online for scholarships from Kern Community Foundation.

Once all applications have been received by the March 1, 2020, deadline and evaluated and scored by community volunteers, 2020-21 academic year scholarship awardees will be notified and required to meet with Foundation staff.

At their counseling session, they will be given the option to receive important notifications regarding their scholarships (paperwork follow-up reminders, GPA progress check-ins, etc.) via text message or email.

More than 90 percent of them will choose text messaging. Thus will begin an electronic communications odyssey on KCF’s part to follow scholarship recipients through their college career — with its many tests, deadlines, milestones and financial challenges — to ensure these students make it through college and fulfill their educational dreams.

“Communicating effectively with students has always been problematic,” said Kern Community Foundation President and CEO Kristen Beall Watson. “And yet, we firmly believe that staying connected to students, beyond writing a scholarship check, is critical to their postsecondary success.”

A Gen Z’s Perspective

According to KCF summer intern Sabrina Chao, a Stockdale High School graduate who is herself a recipient of two scholarships from the more than two dozen scholarship funds administered by the Foundation, text messaging is effective with college students for several reasons:

• “It’s immediate,” the junior at Stanford University majoring in human biology said. “A text sets the expectation that you should check it and reply to it as soon as you see it pop up on your phone.”

• Also, “It’s brief,” she said. “Conversations by text tend to be short and not so heavy.”

• And possibly most importantly, according to Chao, text messages are more likely to get noticed because college students are bombarded with emails.

“Out of 100 emails,” said Chao, who often receives that many in her university email inbox in one day, “only two are worth looking at. Unless you’re waiting for something, you don’t check your email.”

Text Messaging as a Best Practice — and a Money Saver!

Communicating with scholarship recipients via text is not new to Kern Community Foundation.

“With the expansion of our scholarship program in 2016,” Beall Watson said, “we knew that we needed to identify a way to communicate more efficiently with the nearly 300 students who would be receiving scholarship awards from the Foundation.”

KCF learned about the text messaging platform Signal Vine through its participation in the National College Access Network, whose members share best practices to help improve college access and success around the country.

The Foundation has been an NCAN member since 2015.

Following NCAN’s recommendation, KCF entered into a contract with Signal Vine and has been very happy with the results.

For the 2019-20 academic year, KCF will pay $3,500, Beall Watson said, with the fee determined by the number of students who will be reached through the platform.

“In the past two years, we have seen a significant improvement in our ability to stay connected with students,” she said. “It is far more efficient and effective than emailing. We can easily connect with students to follow up on missing documents, encourage them on pending midterms or finals, or simply wish them happy birthday.”

Some examples of actual texts sent to various students include:

• “Just a friendly reminder that the renewal scholarship application deadline is Monday. Even if the scholarship you received in 2018 isn’t renewable, there might be other scholarships you could still qualify for.”

• “Your follow-ups are due soon. Keep in mind that no scholarship checks will be mailed until completed.”

• “Just a reminder that FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) opens today. It’s a good idea to complete it as soon as possible. Best wishes!”

• And, of course, “Happy birthday!”

Whether Signal Vine, Remind or other similar apps, Beall Watson said, “Many of our education partners have invested in this method of communication.”

Of course, KCF still uses U.S. mail and email for such communications as announcing scholarship awards or forwarding scanned documents or transcripts, but as a reminder tool — thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and unlimited texting plans — text messaging works best for our students. And by helping KCF scholarship recipients stay in college through graduation, we are saving their schools a lot of money.

According to “The Student Retention Guidebook” that can be downloaded from signalvine.com, one-third of students enrolled in postsecondary education in the U.S. never complete their degree.

If the average annual cost to attend a public four-year college is about $10,000, the guidebook says, the loss of revenue to a school from 50 students departing after their first year will be $1.5 million.

By engaging in academic advising, career counseling, transcript reviews, coordination with financial aid offices, as well as simply cheering students on and celebrating their accomplishments, KCF is working to ensure their college success — reminder after reminder, text message after text message.

Louis Medina is the director of community impact at Kern Community Foundation. You can reach him at Louis@kernfoundation.org. To learn more about KCF scholarships, visit kernfoundation.org/scholarships.

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