Common App Turns to Artificial Intelligence Chatbot to Guide Low-Income and First-Generation Students

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, college applications dropped, especially among first-generation and low-income students, according to the latest Common App data, which analyzed applications submitted through Nov. 16. For first-generation students and students eligible for fee waivers, applications fell by 10% compared to fall 2019.

Common App is launching a new initiative aimed at addressing the problem – an artificial intelligence chatbot named Ollie, designed to guide students through the admissions process.

Jenny RickardJenny Rickard

When the pandemic started, “our heart went out to the first-generation and low-income students and underrepresented students who already probably feel very alone in the college process,” said Common App CEO Jenny Rickard, “and now … they were home and not in school and not having a connection to whoever their counselors might be, if they even have counselors in their schools. We wanted to figure out a way to reach out to them.”

So, the organization decided to use technology to bring college advising into students’ homes, in partnership with the College Advising Corps and AdmitHub, a company that develops conversational AI to engage students. As a part of the program, students have free access to the chatbot, which texts them to check in about steps in the admissions process. It can ask and answer questions, follow up with relevant resources, and, if need be, ultimately connect them to College Advising Corps advisors for individualized help.

As a pilot program this past summer, the chatbot sent out more than 23 million messages to 173,000 college applicants. About 65% of students engaged with it. Now the option will be expanded to over half a million students, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Capital One Foundation, UBS and the Educational Credit Management Corporation Foundation. Students and families typically receive two to three messages per week.

If the chatbot is proven to be an “effective tool to help students get through,” Rickard hopes to “embed this process as a part of our regular efforts at Common App,” she said.

The advantage of using an AI chatbot is it can offer targeted supports, noted Rahje Branch, senior manager of student and family engagement at Reach Higher, a college access initiative housed by Common App and started by former First Lady Michelle Obama.

For example, Ollie, the chatbot, can ask a student if she’s completed the FAFSA. If she responds she has, but her application has been flagged for verification, the bot can offer specific resources for her situation and signal an advisor to follow up via text. Then the student – and her family – can get on a call or video chat with the advisor for further guidance.

“The participants can engage with the bot 24/7, at any time,” Branch said. “When the bot doesn’t know something, it then learns. The more that students and families are texting the bot, the more it’s actually learning to be able to support participants even more.”

A Brookings Institute study credited a similar AI chatbot for reducing summer melt – in which students indicate their intention to go to college but disappear before the start of the semester – at Georgia State University in 2018. Prospective students who interacted with the bot were 3.3% more likely to show up for their first day of class.

While this program is still a “trial run,” Branch is optimistic Ollie will ease students’ admissions process – and help Common App collect data on more effective ways to reach them. About 50% of participants are low-income, first-generation and minority students, and the program intentionally includes a small portion of family members to track how involving family impacts students.

“This is the largest intervention Common App has done to date,” Branch said.

Branch herself was a first-generation college student and is currently helping her brother, a high school senior, through the college admissions process. When a financial aid offer recently came through, her brother struggled to understand it. She thinks a lot of students are facing similar barriers right now but without the support system that her brother has.

“Typically, he’d be able to ask his counselor if he were in his traditional school setting,” she said. “And we know that a lot of students are just like my 17-year-old brother Ryan. They have questions. And so my hope is … that these students who are participating are able to go to the bot and then go to a college advisor, just like Ryan is able to go to his big sister Rahje and ask questions.”

She knows firsthand the potential impact these interventions can have.

“I’m hoping students and their families will definitely be able to utilize this service to be able to get the information they need and the support that they need throughout this already stressful process, further exacerbated due to the pandemic,” she said.

Sara Weissman can be reached at sweissman@diverseeducation.com.