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New App Reverses 'Summer Melt' To Help Students Make it to College

College Bound, a St. Louis non-profit that helps high schoolers with "under-resourced" backgrounds get into college and earn a degree, is piloting a new mobile app that nudges students at key stages to persist in their college efforts. Code-named "Bridgit," the app is being tested by 40 high school counselors, and researchers are hoping to have it tried out with up to 4,000 students before the pilot is over.

The organization behind this project was seeking new ways to prevent "summer melt," a term used to describe the process that happens between the time a student is accepted into a college or university and when he or she actually enrolls. During that period the student has a myriad of tasks to take care of — going through loan acceptance, compiling immunization records, putting in a housing request, registering for courses, attending orientation and other college-related activities. College Bound estimated that "upwards of 40 percent" of students from low-income families don't weather summer melt.

Bridgit is intended to help them stay on track with all that's required. The app works by having students fill out a survey about their specific college plans and other aspects of their lives. Then Bridgit starts texting customized messages to the students to remind them about what they need to do to stay on top of their college requirements.

As coverage by St. Louis PBS described it, "Bridgit's job is to construct extra scaffolding around efforts to build up college enrollment." When a student takes a step in the right direction, it tracks that; when the student misses something, it sends alerts to counselors to intercede.

A small pilot took place last summer. And early results from the expanded pilot look promising.

In the course of six days, 1,200 students had completed the survey, the first step in Bridgit being able to automate task reminders. "We felt it was critical to foster engagement with high-school students, and texting is a primary way kids communicate and build relationships today," said Gregory Hill, director of innovation at College Bound. "Counselors can easily coordinate their case loads and also communicate directly with students via text. This is freeing up counselors to focus on problem-solving rather than information gathering and, more importantly, keep track of students at risk of not enrolling."

Current testing is being done by college success programs St. Louis Graduates and Missouri College Advising Corps as well as through "random control trials" taking place at seven high schools in Missouri and Tennessee.

Researchers Benjamin Castleman from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and Lindsay Page from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education are guiding the initiative. Once they've finished their research (expected by spring 2015), Bridgit could be licensed to districts or states for educators to use with students and families. It may also be deployed directly to families through foundation grants.

College Bound's goal, said College Bound CEO Lisa Orden Zarin, "is to make the technology free to students from low-income households." Another option under consideration is to create a fee for service offering.

The app was jointly developed by College Bound and Sense Corp, a management consulting firm. The project team chose to develop and deploy the software on OutSystems, a cloud-based Web application platform. That approach offers several advantages, noted Jeff Newlin, general manager of the Americas for OutSystems. For one, the app could be instantly scaled "from a few users to thousands." For another, since development infrastructure wasn't required, the solution could be deployed in a "short time." Also, as changes are made to the application's data model, programming interfaces or architecture, dependencies are "automatically updated." Management of the app is done through a central console.

The work is being funded by a $750,000 grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which supports urban education as one of its flagship programs.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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