UVA Professor Leads First Lady’s Campaign Aimed at Increasing College Completion

Ben Castleman headshot

Curry School professor Ben Castleman is working with the White House to use text messaging to encourage students to pursue education after high school. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

On Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced her mobile messaging campaign designed to provide students with guidance about college, financial aid and loan repayment. At the helm of the campaign is University of Virginia Assistant Professor Ben Castleman.

The “Up Next” campaign is a part of the First Lady’s Reach Higher initiative and her Better Make Room campaign, an effort to inspire students across the nation to pursue education after high school. This spring, the White House and the Better Make Room campaign asked Castleman to help lead the planning for Up Next.

“The aim of Up Next is to provide students across the country with the information, encouragement and assistance they need to pursue high-quality, affordable college options,” said Castleman, an assistant professor at UVA’s Curry School of Education and a researcher in its EdPolicyWorks research center.

Castleman, who has successfully tested using text messaging to improve education outcomes of students, is leading a coalition of behavioral researchers, technology experts, college advising organizations and designers who are working to bring Up Next to millions of American youth.

“We know that text messaging provides a powerful channel to communicate with young people, and prior campaigns have generated substantial increases in college enrollment and persistence,” Castleman said. “Our hope is that Up Next combines this strong evidence base with the power of the First Lady’s connection to young Americans to improve college outcomes at a national scale.”

Between now and the end of 2016, Up Next will launch three separate campaigns aimed at different populations of students:

  • Seniors in high school who sign up to participate will receive text notifications that inform them about college search, financial aid and college applications.
  • Students currently in college will receive texts about making use of campus resources available to them and about renewing financial aid.
  • Recent graduates will receive messages to help them make informed decisions about loan repayment.

“The First Lady has drawn national attention to the importance of postsecondary education for America’s youth,” Castleman said. “Up Next will amplify this message, bringing helpful information and reminders about college and financial aid directly to millions of students.

 “Five years ago, as part of my dissertation, we were wrestling with the notion of how text messaging might be effectively used to help high school graduates successfully matriculate in college,” he added. “Not only have we been able to show that this strategy can improve college outcomes, we now have the chance to take this approach to millions of students across the country. It is pretty special.”

Students who want to participate in Up Next can text “COLLEGE” to 44044. High school and college faculty and administrators who would like to promote the Up Next campaign can download a promotional tool kit.

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