GSU pioneered a system to help all students complete enrollment process

By David Pendered

As college students head to campus this month, administrators across the country are mindful of Georgia State University and a program it tested to help students who have been accepted actually enroll and attend classes.

GSU, Pounce kiss

Georgia State University tested a system named after the school mascot, Pounce, that helped potential students complete the application process. Credit: ww2.gsu.edu

GSU’s effort addressed a phenomenon that’s been dubbed, “summer melt.” This is the proportion of would-be college students who fail to complete the enrollment process in the summer months before classes begin.

From 10 percent to 20 percent of students who’ve been accepted by a college fail to matriculate – with higher rates recorded for lower-income students and those who would be their family’s first generation to attend college, according to recent studies.

Although a college has accepted the youngsters, the potential students become overwhelmed by the task of completing the enrollment process. Much of the trouble centers around the complex task of deciding how to fund their education.

They must do this work at the worst possible time – during the summer. They have been graduated from high school and no longer have access to the very school guidance counselors who helped them apply to college. If their parents aren’t available to help, or simply can’t, the potential students don’t complete the package.

Here’s how an Aug. 3 story in Vox described the cause of summer melt:

  • “One high school counselor compared it to the story of Hansel and Gretel. She told researchers that during the school year, the counselors set out bread crumbs for students to follow. But once high school ends, ‘all of a sudden, the bread crumbs are gone and they have no idea where to go.’ And that leads them to drift off the college-bound path.”

GSU’s artificial intelligence system of communicating with potential students proved their interest in sending questions and receiving answers from the university. The system enabled a higher proportion of students accepted into GSU in 2016 to actually enroll and attend classes. Credit: journals.sagepub.com

GSU was able to reduce summer melt by 21 percent by using an artificial intelligence system to help aspiring students for the 2016 academic year complete the specific tasks with which the students need help, according to the report, How an Artificially Intelligent Virtual Assistant Helps Students Navigate the Road to College.

The report was prepared by Lindsay Page, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Hunter Gehlbach, of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The authors credited GSU personnel including Tim Renick, Scott Burke, Darlene Lozano and the admissions staff in the report first published Dec. 12, 2017.

Writing in the Jan. 6 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Page and Gehlbach outlined the types of challenges the virtual assistant system can help overcome – and at a cost that’s far more affordable than employing an army of counselors to help individual students one at a time:

  • “A successful [AJ] system must cope with individual idiosyncrasies and varied needs. For instance, after acceptance into college, students must navigate a host of well-defined but challenging tasks: completing financial aid applications, submitting a final high school transcript, obtaining immunizations, accepting student loans, and paying tuition, among others.

    Lindsay Page

    Lindsay Page

  • “Fail to support students on some of these tasks and many of them — particularly those from low-income backgrounds or those who would be the first in their families to attend college — may succumb to summer melt, the phenomenon where students who intend to go to college fail to matriculate. At the same time, providing generic outreach to all students — including those who have already completed these tasks or feel confident that they know what they need to do — risks alienating a subset of students….
  • “In collaboration with Georgia State University (GSU), we tested whether ‘Pounce,’ a conversational AI system built by AdmitHub and named for the GSU mascot, could efficiently support would-be college freshmen with their transition to college. Pounce features two key innovations.

    Hunter Gehlbach

    Hunter Gehlbach

  • “First, the system integrates university data on students’ progress with required pre-matriculation tasks. Thus, rather than providing generic suggestions, Pounce matches the text-based outreach that students receive to the tasks on which data indicates they need to make progress and therefore may need help. For example, only students who did not complete the [application for federal education funding] would receive outreach from Pounce. These students could learn about the importance of applying for financial aid and receive step-by-step guidance through the process if they chose to….
  • “Second, the Pounce system leverages artificial intelligence to handle an ever-growing set of student issues, challenges, and questions (e.g., When is orientation? Can I have a car on campus?  Where do I find a work-study job?). The system can be accessed by students on their own schedule 24/7.  It can efficiently scale to reach large numbers of students, and it gets smarter over time.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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