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Adaptive AI to Support Student Persistence at HBCUs




It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life. Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult…


…The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”


In 1947, in the Maroon Tiger of Morehouse College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed what he believed to be the purpose of education. Although Black History Month is officially coming to an end, Black and African-American college students continue to face barriers in their ability to persist and achieve the goals outlined by Dr. King. As we approach Spring Break and the end of the spring semester, we must identify how we might better support these students in overcoming the challenges they face.


In honor of Black History Month, we acknowledge the persistence gap for Black and African-American students and renew our commitment to addressing and improving retention. Our belief is that capturing the student voice, in real-time, gives you unmatched insight into the student experience in that moment. As we look closer at how students from HBCUs responded to our SMS-driven, AI-powered check-in at the start of the semester, we recognize the importance of hearing their voices in support of student persistence.


The Persistence Gap in College Completion


It is alarming that 40% of undergraduate students leave college every year. It is also alarming that only 41% of students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years. When we look at these statistics by race, however, there is also an alarming difference in the college dropout and completion/graduation rates of Black and African-American students versus their White or Asian counterparts.






This disparity among Black and African-American students and their White or Asian counterparts is not new - it has been a significant concern for some time. Yet, even with all the interventions or initiatives, the gap is not closing.


A Temperature Check


As we approached the start of the spring semester, our campus partners implemented a temperature check to assess how students felt heading into the spring term. This check-in is designed to assess whether or not a student expressed any concerns or challenges in the key areas that predict student persistence:

  • Sense of belonging

  • Academics

  • Financial wellness

  • Mental health and wellbeing

The goal of this check-in is to immediately identify at-risk students as early as week one, and provide students with additional information, support, or follow-up within a matter of seconds. The check-in is managed through SMS text messaging, where students receive a text message and engage in conversation that addresses their concerns in real-time.


For example, at Pittsburg State University, Gus the Gorilla checks in with students to see how they’re feeling as they start the semester. He asks questions to get a general sense of excitement or nervousness; presents follow-up questions to drill down to specific issues; and provides recommendations based on how the student responds. The conversation continues as the student responds, and the student who expressed concern through this check-in gets immediate information, sources of support, and reassurance.


Let’s be clear, though: this is not a survey where student responses aren’t reviewed until weeks later. This is a one-on-one student engagement tool, deployed at scale, through a medium that students regularly use (text messaging), designed to adapt its responses to the needs of the individual student. This is a proactive approach to student persistence.


Checking in at HBCUs


Let’s take a moment, though, to look at the specific challenges facing students at HBCUs. In general, HBCUs have lower graduation rates with only 35% of students graduating. But let’s not assume that the challenges they face are the same as non-HBCU students.


From our spring check-in with HBCU students, 52% of them were excited about the semester, 22% were neutral, and 26% were overwhelmed or nervous.

  • Of those who felt good and excited, half of them still had concerns about academics, and 60% of students who were feeling overwhelmed or nervous asked for academic support


  • In general, HBCU students were concerned about academics first (45.71%), followed by finances (34.29%), then social engagement (11.43%), and, finally, wellness (8.57%)


  • Interestingly, social engagement was not a concern for students who felt overwhelmed at HBCUs, and wellness was not a reported concern for those feeling neutral at the start of the semester

At non-HBCU institutions, almost 50% of students reported feeling excited about the semester, 28% were neutral, and 23% were overwhelmed or nervous. At these same institutions, approximately 25% of students reported wellness as their biggest concern and 13% of students reported social engagement, significantly higher than those students at HBCUs.


What we find here is interesting, as wellness has become one of the leading reasons students choose to leave college. At HBCUs, however, responses do not align with the national data and research as wellness ranks last when it comes to the concerns these students have. For those working at HBCUs, it will be imperative for you to understand the specific motivations of your student population in order to support persistence to graduation.


What Do These Differences Tell Us?


A high-level glance might tell us that some differences exist between HBCUs and non-HBCUs in terms of student concerns at the start of a semester. If you look deeper, however, you will see that capturing the student voice and understanding individual student perspectives provides a much clearer picture of the needs of an individual student. Capturing the student voice allows you to better understand student motivations and more effectively provide resources to support persistence.


As you think about ways in which you will address student persistence on your own campus, consider the importance of the student voice in helping you offer individualized support, recommendations, and solutions at scale. Reflect on how the integration of AI and, more importantly, the student voice of your specific campus population could impact the work you do and provide insight into student motivations that you can’t collect in surveys, focus groups, or other mass forms of assessment. Consider and commit to the role technology plays in student success and, as Dr. King would put it, in helping students achieve the legitimate goals of their life.


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