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Using AI to Help Students Learn "How to College"

Artificial intelligence can help students learn "how to college." This sets them on the path to graduation and to success far beyond the college or university.

Credit: PhonlamaiPhoto / iStock / Getty Images © 2019

From before our students even set foot on—or return to—our campuses, we are helping them learn "how to college." In doing so, we are setting them on the path to graduation and to success far beyond our college or university.

Wayne State University, much like the city in which it is located, is undergoing a transformation. In six years, the Detroit-based university has increased its graduation rate from 24 percent to 46 percent. That makes Wayne State one of the fastest-improving higher education institutions in the country. I have been fortunate to be a part of this team since 2016, when I was hired as Wayne State's associate vice president for enrollment management. Over the last few years, we have learned much about how to address the problems holding our students back. Across so many of our initiatives, one common lesson stands out. This is also a thread that, unfortunately, binds many US public colleges and universities together in their struggle to make good on the promise of higher education.

What is this lesson/thread/problem? We don't teach students "how to college."

At Wayne State, 90 percent of our students come from within 30 miles of our campus. More than one-third of last year's freshman applications were from first-generation students. About 40 percent of our students are minorities. In many ways, we are a microcosm of higher education's evolving demographics. Nearly 40 percent of students in the United States are now over the age of 25. More than a quarter of students are parents, and nearly 60 percent of students must juggle their education with work obligations. About half of our students at Wayne State are children of parents who never earned a bachelor's degree. Most of these students arrive on campus ready and capable to succeed in the classroom, but they are not prepared for the unexpected challenges of the college/university landscape.

Clearly, we must teach students how to better navigate college as a system. Consider the following common scenarios:

  • A teenager, the first in her family to be accepted into a college, grows frustrated with the byzantine financial aid process and simply gives up before her first day of class.

  • A sophomore struggles to find an affordable place to live off-campus.

  • A working mother repeatedly skips class because she is unable to find short-term care for her children.

As higher education institutions across the country become more and more diverse, students are increasingly facing these kinds of barriers. Institutions have the solutions to help students with many of these challenges, but they have trouble communicating those answers to students, many of whom may be too embarrassed—or may not even know how—to seek help. At Wayne State, we knew we had to find new and better ways to reach more students in need.

In April 2018, we began experimenting with a conversational artificial intelligence (AI) tool—also known as a "chatbot." The chatbot, developed by AdmitHub, helps prospective students successfully apply to and enroll in a college or university by answering their questions through text and mobile messaging. Marrying AI with a conversational tone, our chatbot—named "W the Warrior," after our mascot—helped boost enrollment by 14.6 percent, including an 18 percent increase in first-generation students and a 13 percent increase in Pell-eligible students.

"W the Warrior" is not a passive assistant. When records indicate that a student has yet to submit an important document (e.g., a high school transcript), the chatbot will message the student, offering both a reminder and further assistance. When students approach the chatbot asking for help, W assists them by providing not only answers but also guided questions. Machine learning allows W to provide better answers to students' questions as more students interact with it.

The questions that students ask W range from simple queries about important deadlines to more complicated inquiries about financial aid. We quickly learned that students were willing to ask W many questions that they were often too embarrassed to ask campus staff. This facet of the chatbot is what particularly excites us about its ability to help a fast-growing cohort at Wayne State: our returning students. These students have many questions that would never occur to their younger peers. To reach these students, in 2018 we launched the Warrior Way Back program, which offers those former students with an outstanding balance of less than $1,500 the opportunity to re-enroll and "learn" away their debt as a way to finally earn a degree. Basically, returning students can reduce their past-due balances by one-third for each semester they are enrolled—until the debt is eliminated.

To put this into context, nearly 700,000 people in the Detroit area have some college/university credits but no degree. That number includes more than 12,000 students who left Wayne State empty-handed. For many of these students, graduation was just around the corner, but financial hardship—sometimes totaling as little as a few hundred dollars—prevented them from reaching the finish line. Too many students are cruelly locked out of completing their education in this way. The Warrior Way Back program is an attempt to rectify this problem.

Of course, financial assistance is not the only support these students need to succeed once they have returned to Wayne State. Upon re-enrolling, students have access to a variety of services and resources designed to guide them toward graduation. Many of these services did not exist during their initial time at Wayne State. As an example, the AI chatbot can help them find out how and where to find childcare services. When these students are told to submit an assignment through a learning management system, W can explain what an LMS is and how to access it.

These are not questions that any returning student should feel embarrassed or afraid to ask. The chatbot allows them to ask these important questions without fear of being judged. In addition, returning students can ask questions no matter the time of day. Many of these students have questions for W during the evening, after campus offices have closed for the day. We are thus now in the middle of launching a version of the chatbot that will be available—anytime and anywhere—through Facebook Messenger.

Even with this AI assistance, in-person guidance and nudges are as vital as ever. But the chatbot has given us more time to focus on these important interactions. W quickly takes care of initial advising questions related to institutional navigation and financial aid, leaving staff with the hours they need to build relationships with students. This dynamic has allowed us to welcome more Pell-eligible, low-income, and first-generation students to campus. It has also allowed us to focus on finding deeper answers to more complicated questions.

At Wayne State, we have discovered that there is no silver bullet to helping our students learn "how to college." But we now know about several solutions that can work in tandem to help our students succeed. Success is not just about how students learn in the classroom. It's also about how students interact with the institution. Our students love communicating with staff through the chatbot. Some even send W fan-mail. "I know you're not real," one student wrote. "But you're amazing."

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Analytikus. Staff authors are listed in

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