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Why Chatbots are Changing the Game for College Student Retention



With more and more students not reaching graduation, it’s clear that the U.S. is currently facing a college student retention crisis. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this crisis has only been amplified as students are facing new obstacles on top of traditional challenges which are often very personal, contextual issues. This combination of different micro barriers makes it difficult for students to persist. Therefore, colleges must identify and address these issues by engaging with students directly while mitigating the challenge of doing so at scale. Luckily, modern conversational artificial intelligence (AI), specifically SMS chatbots, can be a comprehensive solution that overcomes these common obstacles.


Here’s everything you need to know about how chatbots can help colleges maintain and improve student retention.


Collecting Non-Cognitive Data


Traditionally, it wasn’t feasible for schools to recognize when groups of students were feeling lonely or academically disengaged. AI chatbot technology was still in its early stages of refinement and had yet to advance past being only utilized for specific areas like IT or financial aid, or yes and no questions. But as AI has accelerated, so too have the capabilities of chatbots. For the first time ever, chatbots are now able to gather extensive information and support students at scale by identifying the challenges they’re facing, uncover non-cognitive and unknown obstacles, and relay the findings to administration.


For example; EdSights’ SMS chatbot uses conversational AI to both ask and answer questions for students, allowing colleges to access a wider range of data to provide deeper, more detailed insights and be able to hear the voices of students at scale.


This holistic approach to student communication can create an unprecedented ability to monitor student sentiment in real-time, making it possible for institutions to understand which students are struggling, why they are encountering these challenges, and how they can immediately act upon this data.


Some topic examples of data institutions can monitor through a chatbot include:


  • Response to COVID-19 campus safety precautions

  • Emotional responses to online learning

  • Sense of belonging and support system

  • Issues of housing and food insecurity

  • Whether a student feels academically engaged and motivated


Opening Up Two-Way Communication


Two-way communication works when both parties involved are sharing and communicating information. AI advancements allow students to ask chatbots for information and get instant answers 24/7. For example, a student can ask about library hours or whether they should wear a mask on campus and an AI chatbot can instantly respond.


More importantly, chatbots can initiate private conversations that involve questions that students may not be as comfortable sharing with a real person. If a student expresses feeling alone and friendless at school, the chatbot can direct them to attend student engagement opportunities. If a student feels ill-prepared for an upcoming exam, the chatbot may connect them with a tutor or advisor.


Some chatbots have taken it a step further by taking on the mascot's persona, adopting its name, personality, tone and more, helping to personalize the experience and make it more entertaining for students. Data has shown that using a college’s mascot makes the interaction less formal and more approachable, making it easier for students to open up and ask for help. AI companies like EdSights may also reveal chatbot insights on their staff data dashboard so institutions are able to more efficiently identify and support students that would benefit from human follow-up.


Chatbots are, without a doubt, the most effective way to communicate with students at scale and meet them where they are. Baker University, for example, saw positive student feedback regarding their implementation of EdSights chatbots through its mascot, Wowzer.


"Texting Wowzer has been so helpful for me. I feel like Baker University really cares about my experiences and how I'm getting along here. It's so cool that they have a mascot who checks in on you. Way to show school spirit AND show love for the students! I know for certain that I chose the right school and I adore the way that I feel so cared for by Wowzer. It's a really awesome thing and I think college campuses everywhere should have their own kind of Wowzer service!"

- Lauren, Student at Baker University


"I really like the texts from Wowzer. I think it’s another great way to reach out to the students in a less formal and more engaging way."

- Maya, Student at Baker University


Gleaning Actionable, Real-Time Insights


By connecting with students frequently, chatbots provide colleges with pertinent data and trends that help to reveal potential retention issues in real-time allowing them to react immediately rather than retrospectively when it’s too late. Such issues may include anything from preparing for finals to library hours, or more urgent concerns like having adequate funds for classes and a community one can turn to.


Here are two colleges that utilized their chatbot insights and acted upon them immediately to make for a better student experience in just a few weeks:


Eureka College and USC Salkehatchie
Eureka College and USC Salkehatchie were able to use EdSights to identify students who needed laptops for the fall semester and set up a campaign to provide one to those in need.

Athens State
Through their bot, Hebrew The Bear, Athens State ascertained that a significant number of students needed a WiFi connection to complete their online studies. The college responded by setting up a parking lot with free WiFi connectivity.

In many cases, chatbots have also helped to reveal trends occurring in specific groups of students that resulted in schools taking additional steps towards long-term solutions.


Bethel University
Bethel University learned that some of its student body was experiencing food insecurities through their EdSights chatbot. In response, the school will be launching an on-campus food pantry in an upcoming semester.
Upon learning that there was a trend of Black & African American students having a lower sense of belonging, Bethel instituted a Black History Dessert Reception for Black History Month.

Stresses in college are often why students choose not to return the following semester. With real-time insights, universities can act quickly to resolve these obstacles and give students the support they need.


A Solution to Increase Retention Rates Using Chatbots


The personal issues that students face often lead to resulting problems such as poor academic performance, lack of attendance, or non-paid school bills. Until now, colleges have been limited to helping only the students that sought out assistance on a case-by-case basis or students that exhibited lagging symptoms (poor grades, attendance, etc).


With the uncertainty looming over the future of higher education and some classes shifting online, now more than ever universities need a powerful communication channel that gives them instant access to their students and insights into how they feel.


Luckily, EdSights offers a comprehensive solution that provides support at scale by leveraging their unique, education-specific platform. The brilliance of EdSight’s AI-powered SMS chatbot comes from its ability to utilize a retention-specific framework to collect and communicate critical data in a matter of seconds. And with real-time data comes real-time insights.


By leveraging EdSight’s platform, colleges are able to provide unprecedented support to their entire student body and keep a pulse of the group’s overall sentiment towards the semester or school year through its data dashboard. With this information, colleges can make informed decisions that are designed to optimize student success, performance and retention.


Increase Your Retention Rates


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