Using AI To Create A Sense Of Community On College Campuses
contributed by Melvin Hines, CEO of Upswing
It was Fall 2002, and I was a Freshman at one of the largest universities in the country.
I had a mix of emotions: on the one hand, I was excited about this newly-discovered freedom that seemed boundless. Having grown up in a small town in South Georgia, I was suddenly taking classes where the enrollment was larger than my high school graduating class. However, this was also what intimidated me.
Looking around, I quickly became aware that those around me didn’t look like me. Most people didn’t appear to come from the type of community where I grew up. My hometown was a lower-middle-income, mostly minority, working-class community.
Suddenly I was surrounded by mostly affluent, mostly White classmates who appeared to grow up with so many more resources than I had. For the first time in my life, I felt the need to justify my place here. The recent state Supreme Court ruling dismantling Affirmative Action had already brought conversations of race to a boil on campus. Suddenly, I found myself checking everything, hoping I didn’t stick out:
How does my backpack look?
Why didn’t I get the TI-83 calculator?
Should I ask for an iPod for Christmas?
My biggest concern, however, centered around how I was going to improve my Calculus grade. I had just received my first C ever, and I felt there was no one I could even talk to about it. How could I? Black males made up less than 2% of our entire campus. What preconceived notions might I be validating if I walk up to the professor in front of everyone, admitting I was struggling?
I later discovered that I wasn’t the only person having these concerns. Non-traditional students of all shapes — returning veterans, first-generation students, underrepresented minorities — have trouble coping in environments where their peers don’t look like them. The impact is documented in numerous studies: a recent study published in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education showed that Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) have a more significant impact on Latino first-year success than Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs).
Black students are between 6% and 16% less likely to graduate from PWIs than historically black colleges (HBCUs) when controlling for other variables. “Serving a diverse student population and increasing access to a Villanova education for first-generation, low-income students is foundational to the University’s mission and identity,” states Dr. Peter Donohue, President of Villanova University.
Earlier this year, his University partnered with a non-profit called The Posse Foundation. Its stated goal is to send first-year students to college as a group to “back each other up,” and receive a college education. Since its founding in 1989, 90% of Posse Foundation scholars have graduated.
So how can more institutions — with increasingly limited resources — provide such a support network to their students? How do institutions even identify which students need help?
Using AI to Help University Staff Scale Limited Resources
AI-based tools such as automated virtual assistants can go a long way towards creating such experiences. Through the implementation of automated nudging sequences, two-way conversational interactions, and sentimental analysis, institutions can create an experience that mimics the experience of a personal advisor.
At Upswing, we created a tool called Ana, an SMS-based virtual assistant that checks in with students, reminds them of important dates and routes them to key on-campus resources when necessary. The impact we uncovered from its implementation was swift. In the first semester, over 60% of students who had access to Ana engaged with the personal assistant.
Students utilize Ana to get help with the tools and resources they didn’t even know that their institutions offered. For example, one student user at a small, 2-year community college reached out to Ana, saying she was having difficulty applying for financial aid at the institution. After days of scouring the institution’s website for information on this process and trying to connect with an advisor, she turned to Upswing’s Ana personal assistant.
The student was immediately provided with personalized information that ultimately led them to finish their FAFSA application and receive financial aid.“Ana is very useful because I was assisted through my whole FAFSA application. Ana sent me reminders reminding me to finish my application!” the student said.
And this student is not alone. Approximately 36% of conversations through the AI tool are regarding student finances.
Using AI to Create Trust Between Students and the Institutions
AI-based tools can also be used to build trust between students and their institutions.
The tools are especially important for institutions with tight budgets, where access to staff members can also be limited. According to the Education Policy Institute in its study, The Cost of College Attrition at Four-Year Colleges and Universities, the number one reason students cite for dropping out of school is the feeling that “The College Doesn’t Care,” followed by a sense of “Poor Service and Treatment.”
The perception of a lack of concern is more likely an inability to identify struggling students before they quit. In these scenarios, building trust via a personal assistant can help students better connect to their campus communities.
In the winter of 2018, a two-year college located in Texas experienced a sudden onslaught of snow, causing the college to shut its doors. Typically when a school-wide event occurs, this college utilizes its emergency alert texting system to notify students. However, unbeknownst to the college staff, on this particular day, the system did not send out notifications to students.
That morning, the staff began noticing students messaging their campus virtual assistant, Ana, asking if the school was closed. What had initially begun as just a few conversations suddenly became dozens of requests from students asking about the status of classes. Fortunately, this alerted staff to the error, and the staff promptly notified all students about the campus closings.
Since then, over 3,000 new conversations have occurred between Ana and campus students. As students turn to their personal assistant to access information and connect with campus staff members, it not only creates trust in Ana but in their campus community as a whole.
Finally, automated personal assistants can also help institutions identify and support students who have the greatest need. Last year, Ana checked in with students at a particular college to uncover how things, in general, were coming along. Internally, we call these check-ins our “sentiment analysis.” Here, students can respond in an open-ended manner, and Ana categorizes these responses to share them with the correct on-campus resources.
In this particular instance, several students mentioned to Ana struggles they were having with depression, physical abuse at home, and feelings of loneliness. For many of these students, this was the first time they had ever outwardly communicated about these troubles. In these instances, Ana was able to connect the students with critical on-campus staff members and ensure that they received the support and guidance that they needed.
How Institutions Can Successfully Implement AI
It is important to note that implementing an AI-based automated personal assistant is not the same as a texting or notification tool. If the messages that a college sends via email are being repurposed to communicate via mobile, students will eventually treat them as spam. It’s vital when implementing an automated personal assistant solution on campus colleges look for the following:
Automated, two-way communication
Students want to know they can reach out at any time and get a response. It’s especially important for non-traditional students with demanding work schedules.
The ability for staff members to identify and act to support high-risk students
An automated assistant is only as good as the support team behind it. Every need can’t be answered by an automated assistant. Therefore the solution needs to include the ability to identify when a student has a particular need, as well as to determine who within the institution is best suited to resolve that need.
The ability to reach students where they are
All students don’t reside in urban areas, so we shouldn’t expect them to have access to internet speeds similar to an on-campus classroom. For many students, WiFi is not an option at home. The highest mobile-data speeds may not be available either. Therefore, it is important to consider solutions supporting areas such as these.
Connection to other students
As I mentioned above, one of the harder experiences of attending college as a non-traditional student is not feeling like you fit in. Personal assistants can help here tremendously, connecting students with other students, supporting study groups, and more.
Being a college student is difficult. If you are an online student, an adult learner, or first-generation student, those challenges can be overwhelming. However, with the right on-campus tools, we can make things just a little bit easier for non-traditional students.
Melvin Hines is the co-founder, and CEO of Upswing, an Austin, Texas-based educational technology startup removing the barriers to degree equality.