Colleges and universities need all the enrollment help they can get right now. During the pandemic, a much larger percentage of students from the high school class of 2020 took a gap year after graduation, due to the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic numbers, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) statistics. And in addition, the loss of immediate college enrollment did not lead to an expected upswing in gap year enrollment in the fall of 2021. The total drop in undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1 percent from fall 2020 to the fall of 2021, so the total decline since the fall of 2019 amounted to 6.6 percent. Enrollment dropped at every type of college.
Well before the pandemic forced colleges and universities to develop and implement online admissions processes, higher education had already embraced technologies such as chatbots and virtual assistants to facilitate the admissions and enrollment processes. Now, two years after the pandemic first hit the U.S., institutions are using a wide – and growing – variety of technologies in the applications process. Even when the pandemic is completely behind us, institutions will likely continue to use these technologies, which help them be more efficient, enable them to provide answers to applicants’ questions 24/7, make individual contact with prospective students and introduce them to the campus, even if they cannot visit in person.
While campuses have opened up for in-person visits dramatically in the past couple of months, prospective students and their parents continue to use technologies introduced to deal with pandemic restrictions. They offer a convenient and efficient experience for students researching various universities, and can even help boost enrollment.
Higher education institutions have used chatbots in the applications process for many years now. Chatbots, which use artificial intelligence (AI) to simulate a conversation with an online user in natural language via text exchanges, are used by many universities in their admissions and enrollment processes. Boston University, for instance, uses Buzz to answer students’ financial aid, admissions, student employment and registrar questions. Many higher education chatbots take on the persona of the institution’s mascot to reinforce branding. The University of Wyoming, for instance, uses a bot called Cowboy Joe, a chatbot named in honor of the school’s mascot, the Shetland pony, Cowboy Joe.
Not only are institutions using chatbots, but non-profits supporting schools as well. For instance, The Common App partnered with Mainstay and College Advising Corps to give students advice on navigating the admissions process using Mainstay’s chatbot, Oli. Oli sends free, personalized tips to students’ phones and if needed, students can can connect with a trained college adviser from College Advising Corps, a national non-profit that focuses on increasing college opportunity for low-income and first-generation college students.
Wanting to reduce summer melt – students who accept admissions offers but don’t enroll – Georgia State University identified obstacles to enrollment students face between high school graduation and the start of college. The school then developed an approach to help at-risk students overcome the obstacles with a combination of a new student portal to guide students through the enrollment process and an AI-enhanced chatbot, Pounce. The Pounce virtual assistant, developed specifically for GSU admissions, sends reminders and information about enrollment tasks and instantly responds to student questions 24/7. In its first summer of implementation, Pounce delivered more than 200,000 responses to questions posed by incoming freshmen, and the university reduced summer melt by 22 percent.
Other universities offer virtual assistance for enrollment, advising and financial aid. At North Seattle College, prospective students can join regularly-scheduled Zoom sessions with staff from student services to get quick, personal help. Similarly, The University of Houston offers accepted students a chance to schedule virtual appointments, one-on-one meetings with an enrollment services staff member who can answer questions personally.