By the end of this semester, first-year college students who receive money from Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students will start receiving text messages that will remind them what they need to do to keep their scholarships.
Among those messages, they’re likely to see unexpected warnings to keep their grade-point averages above 2.3 and to take at least 24 credit hours each academic year, which doesn’t include classes that are dropped or failed; helpful tips on where to find tutoring help on campus; and gentle encouragement to buckle down for finals.
It’s the latest effort to make sure students know what’s expected of them if they want to continue to receive Louisiana’s generous TOPS awards — and inform them in a way that’s more familiar and immediate for them.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to reduce the number of students who lose TOPS,” Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance spokesman Gus Wales said. “Students sometimes miss the details. This will be a reminder.”
About 48,273 students received tuition through TOPS during the 2013-14 school year, according to LOSFA’s year-end data. The office estimates that about 20,000 students will receive texts as first-year recipients.
A legislative audit last year found that nearly half of the students lost their awards before finishing college, and most of them lost their awards during their first year. It concluded that the state spent more than $46.7 million on TOPS awards for students who didn’t make it on the program past their first year.
Some TOPS advocates dispute those figures, noting that the audit didn’t fully track transfers; so some students may have disappeared from the rolls because they changed colleges and not because they failed to meet the TOPS standards, as the report suggests.
But LOSFA Executive Director Sujuan Boutté said there are clearly misconceptions and misunderstandings among freshmen TOPS recipients, as are reflected in regular meetings the state financial aid office holds on campuses around the state.
During those seminars, they have heard from students who didn’t realize that the state requires that they take a certain number of hours or earn a certain gpa.
They weren’t even always clear about how the money would come in — that it goes straight to the college.
“We give them all of this information, but sometimes they either don’t read it or don’t remember it,” Boutté said. “If that’s where a student is, then we need to do what we can to address that head-on.”
TOPS, which offers tuition assistance to Louisiana students who stay in state for college, has become both a point of pride and a point of contention for Louisiana, but the debate over its ballooning cost hasn’t played into the latest efforts to retain students.
Last year, the program cost more than $221.3 million — up from about $53 million when it started in 1999.
TOPS is funded through a combination of money from the state general fund and tobacco settlement proceeds.
Legislators have cited the swelling expense of the program — due to tuition increases and more students turning to TOPS — as a reason to revamp the program and save the state money.
Calls to make it tougher for students to qualify for TOPS failed during the 2014 legislative session, but a group of state leaders is expected to study the program and make any possible recommendations for changes ahead of the next legislative session.
Wales said the text messaging program, which is being run through a Virginia-based contractor called Signal Vine, will cost the state about $97,000 to set up — less than $5 per student.
The company is geared toward this type of messaging — reaching out to students to provide them financial aid and college success tips.
Signal Vine’s website touts the reasons why texting is a more effective means of communicating with college students: Nearly all of them have cellphones, and they read text messages more than email. A texting system can clear up questions that would otherwise require staffers to field calls and other inquiries. And it apparently works. The company claims that text-based intervention programs can increase college matriculation by as much as 15 percent.
A recent study from the University of Virginia that looked at the impact of a text messaging system on Massachusetts students concluded that “low-cost strategies, such as utilizing text messaging to provide students with information and to connect them to support hold promise for helping students to successfully navigate complex educational processes like FAFSA re-filing and completing the many steps required in the summer transition to college.”
Boutté said LOSFA wants to be “as proactive as possible” in letting students know what’s expected of them.
“These will be very tailored,” Boutté said “Through these push messages, we believe we can get factual information out to students about keeping TOPS.”
The text messaging program eventually will also target some high school seniors with reminders of the steps they need to take to enroll and apply for financial aid.
“This is our attempt to reach students in an as direct way as possible,” Boutté said.
During a recent budget hearing with the state Board of Regents, Boutté said students often will fill out financial aid forms and get accepted to school, but then they just don’t show up when the semester starts — a phenomenon commonly referred to as “summer melt.”
“We have to figure out, why is that?” she said. “What is happening that is keeping those students from enrolling?”