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The Legalities of Texting in Higher Education [2022]

Texting is by far the preferred communication channel for college students, but many institutions still worry about compliance.

Let’s start with some facts: Yes, it’s legal to text students. But there are federal laws and guidelines from phone carriers you have to follow.

 

The Laws That Govern Texting for Higher Education

The two main regulations that govern privacy and texting are FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and the TCPA (Telephone Consumer Protection Act).

FERPA says that a student’s information is private. Typically, only staff members who have a legitimate need to see a student’s data should have access to it. What does that mean?

  • Prospective students — FERPA doesn’t apply to prospective students so your admissions staff doesn’t need to worry about FERPA for prospects
  • Current students — whatever you do for student emails and phone calls, just apply the same logic and policy to texting; it’s really that simple, because texting is just another way to communicate with students

TCPA insn't specific to higher education. It applies to everyone (prospective students, current students, parents and alumni), and regulates any texts sent from third parties to mobile phones. 

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Until recently, the general rule for nonprofit organizations was that they're not legally required to obtain explicit consent to text their contacts. It's important to know that industry-wide best practices have changed. Schools are now expected to obtain written (and documented) consent before engaging in texting campaigns.

Phone carriers and service providers are becoming more sensitive to high opt-out rates and spam complaints. Following the guidelines laid out in our compliance checklist will safeguard your ability to deliver text messages and set your school up for long-term success.

ALWAYS BE SURE TO:
  • Obtain Consent: Ensure your contacts have agreed to receive text messages.
  • Establish a Collection Process: Use a checkbox within application submissions, contact forms, and website portals to easily obtain consent.
  • Store Texting Preferences: One opt-in doesn't apply to all schools and departments. Keep a record of opt-ins by school, department, or team. If your texting solution doesn't manage this for you, you'll need to track it manually.

A comprehensive Text Messaging Policy can help guide your staff (and make your legal office happy). While every campus is different, you can use our Text Messaging Policy Template to get started.

Depending on your texting solution, you can easily track consent across departments and schools for prospective and current students (and their families).

If you're texting via a CRM texting feature, your school is at a higher risk for penalties. Since texting isn't a priority for CRM companies, they're usually the last to hear and adapt to industry changes. When CRMs lag behind industry standards, the schools using them suffer. Schools need support in their solutions to protect them from harm and to ensure they see results from their texting campaigns.

 

Collecting Texting Consent from Students, Parents, and Alumni

A major change for 2022 is that schools need to obtain consent before texting their audience.

In order to obtain proper consent to send the recipient relevant text messages, the collection method must include:

  • What types of messages the recipient can expect to receive
  • An indication of the frequency of messages
  • A place to provide a valid phone number

Collecting consent can be as easy as adding a check-box next to a phone number field with the above requirements.

SOME EXAMPLES:

"Would you like to receive text updates from Mongoose University? You can expect monthly messages with information on important deadlines, student resources, and upcoming events."

"Check here to opt into text updates from Mongoose University regarding deadlines, support resources, and school events. Up to 4 messages/month, message & data rates may apply."

 

Make sure that these boxes are NOT pre-checked. It's recommended that you ask new subscribers to confirm their subscription via text. This is called "double opt-in" and is a great way to ensure you have documented permission to communicate with them via text. 

 

ADVERTISE YOUR TEXTING NUMBER

The most effective way to get contacts to opt into text messaging is to advertise your texting number at key entry points so contacts can share their mobile phone number to receive text updates.

The five easiest ways to collect opt-ins include:
  1. Send an email campaign to notify contacts of the ability to opt-in for text updates
  2. Keep inquiry forms simple, fun, and to the point
  3. Update social media pages with your texting phone number
  4. Update your email signature with your texting number
  5. Update your online application forms to include language for opting into texting


Example
- Text “Go Cats” to xxx-xxx-xxxx for University updates

From there, figure out whether you want a single or double opt-in experience. We recommend you include a double-opt-in the first time you engage any contact via text.

 

SINGLE OPT-IN:

A single opt-in is a one-step action and only requires a person to text a keyword. No confirmation is required, and they instantly become a subscriber.

 

DOUBLE OPT-IN:

A double opt-in involves a two-step action where a person texts a keyword and then is required to confirm their subscription. The main benefits of utilizing a double opt-in are that you will have more engaged/responsive contacts and a decreased likelihood of being flagged as spam.

 

You Need to Establish and Document Your Collection Process

Methods for obtaining consent must be documented and provable in the event that your institution’s messaging activity leads to large spikes in opt-out rates or spam complaints. You need to keep a record of all opt-ins.

Places to ask for consent (opt-in) include:
  • Application or document submissions
  • Forms that ask for contact information
  • Websites or student portals
  • Event registrations
  • Appointment scheduling

You Need to Store Texting Preferences by Team

Contacts should opt into texting on a per-team basis. Each contact should have a separate preference per team or department which is aligned with how opt-in status is stored in your texting platform.

Data fields associated with texting preferences should include:
  • Contact name and mobile number
  • Opt-in status
  • Date/time that the status was last updated

 

You Need to Re-Establish Consent

Obtaining consent to text an individual does not mean that consent is provided indefinitely. Your institution’s texting policy should take into account when consent to text was last established.

Storing a date/time stamp along with a contact’s opt-in status is the best way to track this information.

Consent and opt-in should be re-established if a reasonable time (10-12 months) has passed without any messages being sent to the contact.

 

The Role of Phone Carriers

Not only are there federal regulations to abide by, but phone carriers have their own rules when it comes to the types of text messages they will deliver - especially when they are going to a large group of contacts. It’s in a carrier’s interest to protect their customers from unwanted messages or spam, so make sure your messaging doesn’t come across that way!

Phone carrier standards and penalties apply to all third-party texting platforms, including CRMs with texting features.

Carriers are becoming increasingly particular about the actual content of messages, especially around the usage of links. While it’s ok to use a link within a text message, do so sparingly. Or consider using a text message to direct the contact to check their email for more information, eliminating the need for a link entirely.

As we mentioned above, phone carriers now require colleges and universities to obtain consent before sending text campaigns. Schools that don't comply run the risk of contacts marking tests as spam, or worse, being blocked from texting entirely by your carrier.

 

Emergency vs. Non-Emergency Communications

Your institution likely has an emergency communications policy in place for any urgent matters that arise on campus, and it’s important to note that your emergency communications should be kept entirely separate from non-emergency messages, including the texting platform and phone number used.

 

Emergency communications sent via text message use short-code (5 or 6-digit) phone numbers so they can be sent incredibly quickly to large groups of contacts. These are messages that typically do not require a response, but are meant to alert students of a campus emergency. Contacts are not required to be opted in to emergency communications because they are meant to protect that individual’s health and safety.

 

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Non-emergency communications, on the other hand, can come from a long-code (10-digit) phone number in the area code of your school - which makes the phone number look authentic to the student so they’re more apt to read and respond. Texting platforms typically support non-emergency communication, which can include messages about admission status, financial aid, alumni engagement, student services, and more.

 

Developing a Texting Policy for Your Campus

Whether you’re utilizing texting in one department or campuswide, it’s important to establish a formal texting policy to outline which staff members should be texting, types of content to share, frequency of messages, and brand guidelines to ensure consistent messaging and tone.

 

You don’t want a staff member going rogue and using slang, an abundance of emojis, or sending an influx of messages - if a student is turned off from receiving texts from one department, it’s possible they may opt-out from texting entirely. Staff should have flexibility to show personality and relatability to students, but with parameters to ensure they’re following best practices and are properly representing your institution. 

 

Once the texting policy is developed, make sure it is distributed to every department on campus that is texting students. You should also add the policy to your website for transparency, so students opting in to any communication from your school know what to expect.

 

Texting Best Practices to Minimize Opt-Outs & Spam Complaints

You’ve gotten the proper consent from students and alumni, you’ve established a texting policy, and you’re ready to get started - so now what?

 

Texting is by far the preferred communication channel with college students, so you have to approach your strategy with care. Just because you have permission to text students doesn’t mean every piece of information is worth a text message.

 

A general rule of thumb is that texts should be used to remind students of upcoming deadlines, ask questions, and offer assistance - you should be helpful to your students, not spamming them with unwanted promotions and impersonal messages. Segmenting your contacts as much as possible will help ensure they’re only receiving the most relevant content.

 

Consider going one step further from a texting policy and develop a texting communications plan, which outlines objectives for each department that is texting, determines which staff members will be involved, selects a texting platform for communication, and even provides sample templates to guide the messaging strategy. Taking the time to develop a thorough approach now will save you a headache (and prevent lots of opt-outs) later.

 

Texting Platforms Help Your School Stay Compliant 

One of the easiest ways to ensure you stay compliant with the legalities of texting and create a positive experience for contacts is to manage your communications through a texting platform. Platforms protect you from yourself, ensuring that students who have opted out from texts cannot possibly receive a message from you, and keeps their preferences updated as information changes in your CRM or system of record.

 

When considering a texting platform for your campus, there are several things to think about:

  • How many departments/staff members will be texting?
  • What are our institution's engagement goals?
  • What features are most important to us?
  • How will the platform integrate with our current systems?
  • How can we allocate our budget as strategically as possible to take advantage of texting

Higher ed student engagement platforms with two-way texting functionality are the safest choice for colleges and universities.  Not only are they designed to meet the unique needs of higher ed, they integrate with your current systems to seamlessly flow data into your contact records, so you can ensure compliance and a positive user experience.

With the help of automation and advanced features, you can more efficiently serve your constituents, while achieving better outcomes - increased enrollment, retention, stewardship - in the process.

 

Watch Out for CRM Texting Features

Since texting isn't a priority for CRM companies, they're usually the last to hear and adapt to industry changes. New phone carrier requirements are a perfect example. As of April 2022, industry-wide best practices have changed to require consent before engaging with your contacts.

When CRMs lag behind industry standards, the schools using them suffer. Schools need support in their solutions to protect them from harm and to ensure they see results from their texting campaigns.

Learn more about issues that arise when texting through your CRM.

 

Additional Resources

Mongoose is dedicated to educating and empowering the higher ed community with the knowledge you need to help more students succeed. All of our articles, podcasts, and videos come from real engagement experts with a deep understanding of higher education.

Subscribe for regulatory updates, along with the best guides and how-tos for the higher ed community. If you're sick of email, we totally get it. That's why there's the For Your Institution podcast or video series on YouTube. For quick takes and bite-sized industry updates, follow Mongoose on LinkedIn.

 

Glossary

Auto-Dialer (ATDS):
Software that automatically dials phone numbers, and when the call is answered, a recorded message plays or the recipient is connected to a live person.

Carrier violation:
When a phone carrier receives an SMS text message from a sender and chooses not to deliver it to the recipients due to a spam-like nature.

Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA):
A United States federal law enacted in 1974 that protects the privacy of student education records.

Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS):
Sending multimedia text messages (including a photo or video) through a cellular network.

Opt-In:
Consent given by an individual to receive communication from you.

Opt-Out:
Revoking of consent from an individual to receive communication from you. 

Short Message Service (SMS):
Standard text messages (text only) that are sent through a cellular network.

Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA):
A United States federal law enacted in 1991 that regulates telemarketing, auto-dialed, and pre-recorded phone calls as well as text messages. 

Live chat:
When more assistance is needed in a chatbot conversation, a staff member can jump in and chat with an individual in real-time.

Text nudge:
A reminder sent through text message to take a particular action, often to supplement a previous communication.