A little texting can go a long way toward improving student success and retention

Posted by Brian Ruhlmann on July 28, 2016
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How well do you know the state of student success in higher education in the United States?

Let’s find out with a four-question pop quiz!

True or False:

  1. More than 50 percent of students who enroll at a four-year college receive a bachelor’s degree in six years or less.
  1. More than 30 percent of students who go to a two-year college earn an associate’s degree in three years or less.
  1. The biggest reason students drop out is because they can’t afford tuition.
  1. More than 50 percent of college students who drop out report that they were responsible for paying for school themselves.

CCV_graduates.jpg

Believe it or not, the odds are stacked against college entrants, as less than half will go on to graduate within six years of starting school. Photo credit: Community College of Vermont via Foter.com / CC BY

The answers to the four questions above are FALSE, FALSE, FALSE, TRUE. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back if you got all of them right, but many people aren’t aware of the dropout crisis in higher education. Actually, it doesn’t seem right to pat yourself on the back about something so depressing. Perhaps you should just grimace knowingly instead.

These sobering statistics about struggling students may come as a surprise to many folks. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has examined this issue in depth; the quiz questions above are just a few of their surprising findings from their study,  With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, A Public Agenda Report for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report also debunks some myths about college completion and paints the picture of a troubling reality. Here’s an excerpt:

“The number one reason students give for leaving school is the fact that they had to work and go to school at the same time and, despite their best efforts, the stress of trying to do both eventually took its toll. More than half of those who left higher ed before completing a degree or a certificate say that the ‘need to work and make money’ while attending classes is the major reason they left. Balancing work and school was an even bigger barrier than finding money for tuition. Those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills (54 percent to 31 percent).”

These are statistics that many schools know all too well and are trying to combat. To be fair, it is it’s not always just one factor that causes a student to drop out. Often it’s a combination of stressors that can make it difficult to complete a degree.  Many students have to work their way through college while also providing support to children or family members. And then when you add a demanding academic schedule on top of working and supporting your family, it becomes easier to see why less than half of students complete a four-year degree within six years. While there is no simple solution to this dilemma, many colleges and universities are taking it upon themselves to help matriculating students overcome some of these out-of-the classroom challenges.

Many schools have created “Student Success” or “First-Year Experience” programs to guide students through their first year and offer support and reminders when needed. Allegheny College and Georgia State University, both AdmitHub chatbot partners, have top-ranked first-year experience programs, according to U.S. News and World Report. These schools proactively identify at-risk students and provide academic coaching, learning communities, and extra support for first-generation students.

Unfortunately, many schools haven’t been able to implement this kind of program, or they struggle to quantify how effective it is. However, with advances in technology, an increasing number of schools are making a big impact on retention and matriculation numbers.  How? Via text-message “nudges.”

In an extensive research project by Lindsay Page and Ben Castleman, they tested to see whether basic, one-way text messages could reduce the numbers of students who drop out after their freshman year. uAspire sent a series of 12 messages to freshman students, with reminders about important steps in the process of completing the FAFSA again. Among the freshmen who received the text-message reminders, 68 percent of them went on to complete their sophomore year, compared to only 54 percent among those who did not receive the text messages.

Clearly, text nudges are a cost-effective way to not only reach students, but also get them to take action. According to qualitative research related to the study , “86 percent reported that the texts prompted them to complete a task they hadn’t done yet, and 85 percent reported that the texts informed them about something they hadn’t realized they needed to do.”

Meanwhile, AdmitHub is working with student affairs and retention leaders at schools to take this “nudging” strategy to the next level. Instead of simple, one-way notifications, AdmitHub’s chatbot technology provides two-way, on-demand assistance. Students not only get a series of timely nudges (about the FAFSA and other key steps), but they also can ask questions and get instant answers via the chatbot’s seeded custom knowledge base.

The chatbot can also identify and check in on at-risk students, attempt to get students more involved in campus life, and more. Nudges can be triggered to go out to students who fit certain criteria -- e.g., low grades or skipped classes, missing financial aid documents, etc. And the information exchange is two-way, too: Students can get the right piece of information they need at the right time, and schools can use their chatbot to gather data to better understand and support their students.

AdmitHub isn’t alone is betting big on chatbots in education; Bill Gates is too. In a Business Insider article, Gates mentions that when he is confused about a subject, he’ll often email someone to get straightened out. He believes that chatbots can help in this very same way fashion. As you are trying to understand or work your way through a problem, a chatbot can help validate or augment your knowledge, correct your mistakes, and guide you in the right direction.

That kind of approach is perfect for first-generation students. These students are often intimidated by a long list of administrative tasks that must be completed before they set foot on campus on day one, and those challenges can persist throughout their first year and into their second.

First-generation students often don’t have a close support group that has experience with the admissions process. As many times people say “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” first-generation students might be reluctant with reach out to a university support center if they think it is a question most applicants should know. Students like speaking with a chatbot because it is a judgment-free zone that’s designed to be helpful. A Georgia Tech professor used a chatbot as one of his nine teaching assistants, and students were ready to nominate the chatbot as an outstanding TA before they found out it was an artificially intelligent virtual assistant.

Whether it is a First-Year Experience program, a Student Success division, a messaging campaign or a combination of strategies, students should be able to get the support they need to help them beat the odds and graduate on time. High-touch and high-support programs are fantastic, but a little effort and a little texting can go a long way. If you are interested in learning more about how AdmitHub creates custom college bots to communicate with students via  text messaging or Facebook Messenger, feel free to drop us a line!

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Topics: chatbot, College Admissions, colleges, chatbots, messaging, texting, retention, student success