The Up Next Program Preps Kids for College by Texting Them
If you want a teenager to ignore you, send them an email. Today’s youth might be obsessed with messaging, but very few of them are obsessed with email messaging. Some proof: A recent study from Pew found that a mere six percent of teenagers exchange emails everyday; this compared to the 55 percent who text their friends on a daily basis.
Schools, which have long battled the smartphone as a classroom distraction, have begun to catch on—if you want kids to listen to you, you’ve got to reach them where they’re at. And where they’re at is on their phones, staring at their text threads. It’s no surprise, then, that an increasing number of teachers are using texting to remind their students about tests and homework. And startups are getting in the game, too, promising engagement with the youngins through the wonders of personalized text messages.
Now the government is looking to do the same, through a program called Up Next. The project, which is a joint effort between digital creative agency Huge, Civic Nation and the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, is designed to prepare students for the transition from high school to college by texting them information they need to know when they need to know it. High school juniors and seniors can sign up for the program and Up Next will push them precisely timed messages about preparing for the SAT/ACT, and applying for school and financial aid. The idea being that if you give students information exactly when they need it, they’ll be less likely to forget about it or brush it aside.
Up Next was born out of the realization that a sizable chunk of the $150 billion in government money offered annually for student aid was going untouched. (Last year, the remaining chunk was about $7.3 billion.) In talking to students, the team at Huge discovered that the barrier to entry wasn’t filling out financial aid forms—it was knowing when to do so and how to access them. “People are obviously hungry for it, but they just don’t know where to turn,” says Kate Watts, the managing director of Huge’s Washington D.C. office.
There are resources available for anyone willing to sift through enough .gov websites, but how many 16-year-olds do you know who are excited and willing to do that? Plus, it’s not like the websites are easy to navigate. Up Next is designed to be a digital guidance counselor, gently but firmly pushing students to take care of their business. As Kyle Lierman, an associate director of the Office of Public Engagement puts it: “The way I think of it is a guide and a reminder tool,” he says. “It’s not going to make filling out the form itself 10 times easier, but it’s going to help people understand where and when they need to go places and what they’re going to need when they get there.”
In a lot of ways, Up Next is like a modern update on the government portal. Every text that’s sent through the system is part of a chronological to-do list. For example: Two months before a student is scheduled to take the ACT or SAT, Up Next will send a reminder that it’s time to start studying. Ten days before the FAFSA application is available to fill out, students will receive a reminder that it’s time to start preparing. Every text comes with a link that directs students to a personalized Up Next site, which acts as the information hub for everything they need to accomplish. Every to-do on Up Next’s website is explained in further detail with information about why it’s important, the timing of when it needs to be accomplished, and links to pertinent forms. Essentially, the program directs students to a one-stop shop for everything they need to get into college.
The texts are designed to be conversational. “Like an older peer, but not your mom,” says Karelia Moore, the lead designer from Huge on the project. The texts are written as gentle nudges, and, aside from the choice to “mark as done,” there’s no following up on the part of Up Next. “We’ll just assume you’re doing what you need to do,” she says.
It’s a decidedly simple approach, which is exactly why it could ultimately be effective. Texting is cheap and ubiquitous. It’s one rung below email on the interaction-complexity ladder, which makes it appealing for students who are used to instantaneous communication. Up Next translates oft-dense information about government forms and programs into bite-sized, actionable texts that, when deployed at the right time, make the process of getting stuff done a lot less cumbersome. This is in line with the White House’s increased focus on using behavioral science research to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs. Ultimately, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team is looking for ways to use technology to adapt to the way people live in order to make things like automatic enrollment for retirement savings plans or streamlining the financial aid application process much easier.
The program is currently in beta, but Huge says the plan is to roll out more tasks that will guide college students through paying back their loans. Eventually, if it works, you can imagine how this service might help usher these students through their young adult lives—demystifying buying health insurance, applying for home loans, or any other messy life task one might have to sort through. “This is really meant to be a tool that scales and grows over time,” Watts says. “I think what is really exciting for us is it’s a way for a younger generation to engage with a brand [the government] that, to be perfectly honest, has had a really tough time engaging especially through digital and technology.”