Calif. Partnership Hopes to “Nudge” Foster Youth Toward Diplomas

At two California colleges, students who have spent time in foster care are getting words of encouragement from their most trusted companion: a cell phone.

Advocates for California foster youth have partnered with a company that specializes in helping keep students on the path toward a diploma using text messages.

Persistence Plus is a Boston-based venture that uses text messaging to motivate college students and keep them engaged in college. The company was founded by former Jobs for the Future Director Jill Frankfort, and was developed through the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Education Ventures program.

The company partners with colleges, universities and nonprofits to provide electronic “nudges” to students aimed at keeping them on track. It is a concept that has gained traction in recent years, attractive because of its low per-student price.

It is an inexpensive strategy that targets a critical issue in child welfare. The rate of foster youth who even enroll in college is dismal, as is the rate of completion for the ones who do make it onto campus.

“There have been studies that show, whether it’s about taking medicine on time or getting out to vote, the right message at the right time can actually change behavior and habit,” Frankfort said. “So we use those same types of messages to help students be successful in college.”

Foster Care Counts, which supports foster youth and their families in Los Angeles, invited and paid for Persistence Plus to connect with current and former foster youth attending California colleges. Foster Care Counts was founded in 2008 by Jeanne Pritzker.

Initial partnerships were made with the University of California-Riverside and Moreno Valley College. Both campuses have “Guardian Scholars” offices dedicated to helping foster youth navigate college life with modest financial assistance and advising.

“We spent a lot of time in the beginning talking to some of the Guardian Scholars coordinators…to really make sure we had a good understanding of some of the challenges that are unique to this population,” Frankfort said. “For instance, not being able to go home during vacation breaks, and what that experience is like. Also, the experience of hearing other students talk about their upbringing, how their parents are providing support, that can be a challenge.”

Between three and five times per week during the school year, each Guardian Scholar student at the two colleges receive what Persistence Plus calls “nudges,” text messages offering encouragement and advice.

Early assessment of the foster youth venture in California suggests that, at the very least, students are continuing to “get the message.” At Riverside, where Persistence Plus launched in 2014, 79 percent of students continued to receive the nudges seven months after launch. Ninety-two percent of students responded at least once to the prompts, and the majority responded more than 15 times.

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