Nudge texting helps students remember key program deadlines and encourages them to reach their full potential.

By Justin Chapman

When the pandemic hit, Valdosta State University Admissions Director Ryan Hogan knew school administrators had to communicate quickly and consistently with students despite limited in-person contact. New technology would be crucial to achieve this goal.

Administrators, professors, and parents across the country are facing the same dilemma as Hogan. Now, they’re meeting students where they are: their smartphones.

One technique is known as “nudge texting,” or pushing text notifications to large numbers of students to inform them about upcoming deadlines and support programs such as SNAP benefits and financial aid. The idea is to use low-cost, text-based interventions to positively influence student behavior as they pursue their education.

“Just by these very strategic and surgical reminders, they’re able to change student behavior where it makes a huge difference on student performance,” said Phillip Kim, CEO of the Michelson 20MM Foundation.

The Michelson 20MM Foundation and Michelson Impact Ventures (MIV), a social change fund investing in early-stage, purpose driven, for-profit startups, have been at the forefront of funding tech innovation to help schools and students communicate with one another.

One of MIV’s earliest investments on the education side was Mainstay, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup that built an industry-leading student engagement platform with behaviorally intelligent chatbots.

Mainstay’s chatbots send students reminders and personalized messages—”nudges”—that have been shown to improve student outcomes, curbing enrollment decline by 20 to 30 percent. Nudge texts also remind a student that “you can do this, this is good for your future, it is possible, it will make a difference in your life,” and similar inspiring messages.

Since MIV invested in the company four years ago, Mainstay has become the country’s number one AI chatbot. It has served more than 5 million students, closed over $14 million in venture funding, and become a key part of the Michelson 20MM Spark Grant program. Spark Grants fulfill urgent needs for educational organizations at a faster rate than a traditional grant decision timeline.

The first ever Spark Grant was awarded to Reach Higher, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s effort to promote higher education in the United States. The initiative helps high school students in underrepresented areas apply to college and navigate financial aid and standardized testing. Mainstay built the AI chatbot for Reach Higher.

Mainstay says its empathetic chatbots “consistently outperform other methods of communication—with 90 percent of people reading every text they receive within just three minutes. When you need to capture a student or employee’s attention right now, Mainstay’s chatbots have you covered.”

Nudging is not just about texting, however.

Modomatic, another Michelson 20MM Spark Grantee, focuses on pushing positive messages to students through social media channels. Students will see practical information in their social feeds, like how to apply to a certain program, join organizations, or prepare for the upcoming semester. It’s not direct outreach—the information appears as social media posts—but the idea is the same as nudging: it’s another way to communicate with students where they are.

When Dallas College used Mainstay’s web chat, they saved 847 staff hours after 39,621 students interacted with the chatbot and sent 50,874 messages.

“The motivation for change is to serve students,” said Molly Bewley, Senior Director of Community Marketing at Dallas College. “Having something available 24/7 to answer student questions and get them information is an amazing addition. We are really excited about growing and continuing to serve students in new ways.”

Because the Michelson 20MM Foundation is catalytic and nimble, it can look for opportunities to be strategic in the way these interventions are used. Kim said the method has proven to be one of their more productive pathways for reaching students.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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