Goodwill Excel Center - Central Texas


  • Goodwill Central Texas Excel Center, Texas

Focus Area

  • Education

"We know that the single greatest solution to moving people out of poverty is education. So we need to move the needle on students persisting to graduation and post-secondary education. That will change their lives and that of their families. We need to do better; this research will help us drive to that."

Traci Berry, Superintendent of Schools, Goodwill Central Texas Excel Center

The Issue

Education can be a great equalizer for people in poverty—economically, intellectually, and socially. Yet still, as of 2019, 31 million American adults had not earned their high school diploma.

In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people with professional degrees earned three times more than those without high school diplomas. For adults who don’t graduate from high school, average weekly earnings hover around $520. Adults who have a high school diploma, on the other hand, earn an average of $712 per week. 

In Texas alone, more than four million adults have not completed their high school diploma. And for those who may wish to return to school and graduate, many face obstacles brought on by the responsibilities of adulthood—work, raising children, caring for aging parents, and so on. But earning a living wage moves farther out of reach without a high school diploma, putting a wage earner and their family at greater risk of falling into poverty.

But there is a way forward. Research shows that earning a high school diploma has tremendous value, even far into adulthood. Cameron & Heckman find that the returns on a high school diploma are consistently significant across earnings and employment outcomes. For those who didn’t graduate from high school as teens, earning a high school diploma as an adult is still likely to boost economic opportunity. 
But returning to school can be challenging for even the most motivated adult learner. Inflexible work schedules, a lack of affordable childcare, unexpected expenses, and other circumstances of adulthood are constraints that can make it difficult to dedicate the resources and time necessary for learning.

The Excel Center is an accelerated adult learning program designed to help adult students earn their high school degrees. The Excel Center offers robust services to help adult learners overcome the barriers they face in completing their high school education. For many, a lack of affordable or reliable childcare or transportation can prevent them from attending class. So the Excel Center provides free childcare and transportation vouchers to help ensure students can get to class. The Excel Center also provides life coaching and mental health counseling to help students balance the demands of school and life.

But despite high returns to graduation—another LEO student of Excel Centers in Indiana found a 35% increase in earnings within four years of program start—and access to robust supportive services, the Excel Center’s completion rate is only 28%. This begs the question: How can we ensure that more students persist through the program and graduate?

Recent studies have shown that behavioral tools—ranging from simple text message reminders to in-person counseling sessions—can help motivate people to do things that they want—but often fail—to do (Mayer et al., 2019). Text messaging programs have emerged as a low-cost, scalable way to affect behavioral change, but many questions remain about their impact specifically on school persistence. On the other hand, in-person supportive services—while more expensive and not as easy to scale—have been successful at improving academic outcomes at both at the college level and at the high school level.

This much is clear: A high school diploma leads to better employment and earnings outcomes. We need to understand what works to help adult learners grasp their second chance and persist in graduating from high school.

The Intervention

The Excel Center of Central Texas intervention focuses on helping students overcome barriers that might keep them from graduating high school and keep their eye on a college and career-based future. 

All Excel Center students have an initial meeting with a life coach during school orientation, where they set goals for their educational path. From there, students take one of two tracks. Some students begin receiving weekly text messages that contain motivational messages and reminders from the life coach intended to encourage students to continue working towards their goals. All other students will attend the Excel Center as normal, with all of the typical services and classes available, but will not receive the motivational text messages.

Research Question

What is the impact of text message nudges on high school completion for adults?

Intended Outcomes

  • Students who participate in the text messaging service will have a higher completion rate at the Excel Center.
  • Students who participate in the text messaging service will attain higher earnings post-graduation.
  • Students who participate in the text messaging service will have a higher participation rate in post-secondary enrollment.

Research Study Design

The Excel Center behavioral intervention study is a randomized controlled trial to allow LEO to study the impact of the text message services. To be eligible for the services, individuals must be active students in the current term at the Excel Center.

Because the Excel Center does not have the resources to provide motivational text messages to every student and desires to study the effects of these text nudges, eligible students are randomly assigned to a group that will receive the text messages or to a control group. Students randomly assigned to the treatment group receive the weekly text messages after their initial meeting and goal-setting session with their life coach. Students assigned to the control group do not receive the text messages but have access to other standard Excel Center services.

At the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers will compare Excel Center persistence and completion rates, earnings, employment, and post-secondary enrollment outcomes across the treatment and control groups.

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