Tim Renick is the senior vice president for student success at Georgia State University. Lindsay Page is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.
The "summer of COVID-19" has posed unprecedented — and rapidly evolving — challenges for colleges and universities. Amid the ongoing and increasingly public debate about how to reopen safely, institutions are grappling with a more pernicious challenge: whether their students will return at all, virtually or in person. According to one recent survey, as many as 40% of incoming freshmen say it is unlikely they will attend any four-year institution this fall.
Of course, the impacts of the so-called summer melt phenomenon on incoming first-year students are nothing new. Research suggests that even before COVID-19, as many as 20% of admitted college students who indicated they planned to attend never showed up for the first day of class. The figures are up to twice as high for students who come from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their families to attend college. Not only do these students often require financial support to enroll, but they also are more likely to lack a support system at home to guide them through college processes. That turns already complex admissions and enrollment logistics into a nearly insurmountable set of obstacles.
Summer melt is one point on the education continuum where students can be lost, but it's far from the only one. Throughout every year of students' college experience, they must navigate many of the same hurdles — paperwork, filing deadlines, registration holds, confusing government guidelines — they faced as newcomers. And every fall, many of those students don't return to school, joining the ranks of nearly 40 million U.S. adults with some college but no degree.
This fall, as institutions weather the pandemic's ongoing impact, these challenges will loom larger than ever. It will be critical for colleges and universities to communicate clearly and proactively, and to help students and families navigate the challenges they are facing if they hope for students to show up again (virtually or in-person).
How can this communication happen as effectively as possible?
Over the past few years, we've conducted research on the role of conversational artificial intelligence (AI) in helping to address the summer melt challenge. By nudging students via familiar channels like texting, AI-powered chatbots can answer student questions in real-time, share reminders about key deadlines, and free up time for advisers and support staff to interact personally with the students who need it most.
Three years ago, we conducted an experimental study finding that Georgia State University's chatbot, which goes by the name of Pounce, helped reduce summer melt among first-year students by more than 20% — with the greatest gains seen among the same low-income and first-generation students who tended to struggle the most in the enrollment process. In the years since, as Georgia State has integrated Pounce into its standard practice for communicating with and supporting students in their transition to campus, that number has grown to more than 30% — meaning hundreds of additional students are enrolling each year. And today, the use of similar chatbots is proliferating, helping students across the country navigate the complexities of the admissions and enrollment process.
Some studies have since found this type of success hard to replicate. To put those findings to the test and better understand what it takes for behavioral nudging to succeed at scale, we recently released a new working paper showing how AI can support students after they enroll in college. Our hope is to begin to elucidate the conditions under which nudges can be helpful for supporting student persistence and success.
The new research is based on a question that arose not long after we completed our initial study: If AI works so well for students as they enroll, what will it take for it to address challenges for students post-matriculation?
As it turns out, chatbots can have a similarly meaningful impact on students once they arrive on campus. That impact is most significant when it comes to important administrative processes with clear deadlines, such as filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), paying bills or resolving administrative holds. These are just the types of tasks on which the summer transition outreach focuses.
Our new study found that using conversational AI chatbots to assist students in meeting key deadlines and completing critical tasks helped Georgia State boost rates of FAFSA filing and registration for the subsequent fall semester by 3 percentage points. Scaled to the entire Georgia State undergraduate student body, an impact of this magnitude translates to more than 1,300 students taking the next step in their college journey who otherwise might have stopped out or been stuck in place.
As the prior research suggests, a big part of the platform's success has come from knowing whom to reach out to, and when: for instance, only the students who need to sign for their loans get the prompt to do so. Perhaps most importantly, Georgia State's Pounce chatbot is not a unidirectional nudging system. Students can respond to any text with follow-up questions and receive a reply, typically within seconds, making the experience that much more personalized, and therefore more effective.
There's still more work to be done to understand what types of nudges work best in which conditions. It's worth noting that in cases where our outreach focused on less-time-sensitive tasks or actions, such as attending a career fair, it was far less effective in encouraging the target behaviors and actions.
This type of initial finding is important for two reasons. First, it may help institutions support their students more effectively throughout the school year, rather than just during the summer. Second, it provides clear evidence that if implemented effectively, behavioral nudges can have a measurable impact on key indicators of retention and persistence.
Facing the uncertainty of the upcoming semester and the ongoing health risks posed by the pandemic, colleges and universities will need to consider new approaches that can help them keep students engaged throughout the summer and ready to return in the fall. Our research suggests that AI chatbots can be a powerful tool — not just to bridge the gap for incoming students, but also to help all undergraduates stay on course for college completion.