Here’s how to boost enrollment with chatbots

Georgia State University’s virtual assistant helps incoming freshmen navigate the student enrollment process, leading to a significant increase in enrollment

As recently as last year, nearly one in five students who committed to attending Georgia State University (GSU) never showed up for classes in the fall. This problem isn’t unique to GSU, and it’s commonly referred to as the “summer melt.” But GSU has taken an innovative approach to solving this challenge, using an artificially intelligent (AI) chatbot that has led to a significant increase in student enrollment.

Summer melt most commonly affects low-income students, many of whom are the first in their family to be accepted into college. Navigating the complex student enrollment process can be intimidating for anyone, but especially these students—and many just give up before they complete the process.

To reverse this trend, GSU identified the common barriers that students face between graduating high school and beginning college, including filling out financial aid forms, completing immunization records, taking placement exams, and registering for classes.

The university then developed a two-pronged approach to help at-risk students through these obstacles: (1) It implemented a new portal to guide students through the steps they must take to be ready for the first day of classes, with technology to track their progress toward completion so officials could ensure their success; and (2) it launched “Pounce,” an AI-enhanced chatbot, to answer questions about the process from incoming students 24-7 via text messages on their smart devices.

The chatbot is powered by a mobile messaging platform from AdmitHub, an edtech company that develops custom chatbots designed to support student enrollment and retention. It uses conversational AI technology to personalize admissions support for incoming students, drawing upon a knowledge base with answers to more than 2,000 anticipated questions.

AdmitHub built this knowledge base in partnership with GSU administrators, who gave the final approval on what the chatbot’s responses would be. While this knowledge base continues to grow, there are times when the bot hasn’t yet learned the answer to a specific question, says AdmitHub Co-Founder and CEO Drew Magliozzi. There are also situations when it’s best for a human to intervene to provide additional guidance.

“In these cases, students’ questions are escalated to an admissions counselor,” Magliozzi says. “After responding, the counselor has the opportunity to train the chatbot if the Q&A would be helpful to a larger student audience.”

In 2017, the university’s first summer of implementation, Pounce delivered more than 200,000 answers to questions asked by incoming students. “Every interaction was tailored to the specific student’s enrollment task,” says Scott Burke, associate vice president and director of undergraduate admissions. “We would have had to hire 10 full-time staff members to handle that volume of messaging without Pounce.”

As a result of this more personalized approach, GSU reduced its summer melt by 22 percent that year. This translated into an additional 324 students sitting in their seats for the first day of classes, rather than sitting out the college experience.

Encouraged by this success, GSU has expanded its use of Pounce to engage students from the time they first express an interest in the university all the way through enrollment—and Pounce is now engaging more than 50,000 students and prospects.
For the second year in a row, Burke reports, summer melt decreased at GSU for the 2018-19 school year—and enrollment of new first-time students was up 17 percent over last year. The university plans to use the chatbot as a means of driving retention and graduation among its current students soon as well.

“As AdmitHub’s first chatbot client, I was nervous about the risk we were taking,” Burke says. “Our number-one goal was to deploy a solution that would nudge and walk students through complex processes such as filing a FAFSA in a personalized way. The results far exceeded my expectations.”

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