Questions questions everywhere
And all the students stay silent
Questions questions everywhere
Not any answers to be found
Deciding where and when one goes to college is one of the largest, most complex, and pivotal decision that is made by any person who pursues that journey. Higher education can set one on an upward professional and financial trajectory or catapult them into unnecessary debt with no degree. Traditionally, students make this decision in their senior year of high school, sometimes earlier with the guidance of parents, high school counselors, and college professionals.
However, more recently we see individuals entering or reentering college later in life, with more than 35% of college students being over 24. We had more first-generation students in the 2015-2016 academic year than ever before: approximately 56% of all undergraduate students were first generations students, meaning neither parent held a 4-year degree. Further, institutions have made diversity a sweeping goal in 2020. Recruiting efforts are increasingly aimed at students from all walks of life, including those with multi-cultural backgrounds and English as a second language.
The diversity inside today's average student body creates a bigger universe of questions and demands for financial aid offices. Colleges are facing far more questions than ever about ALL available funding options, application processes, emergency funding sources, and degree completion.
I have no doubt that phones are ringing, email boxes are flooded, and students are walking into aid offices. However, I came across a few statistics the other day and it made me realize that even though some questions are being asked, those most in need of help are not raising their hands for help.
The Main Barrier Is Financial, The Outcome Is Debt Without A Degree
We know that college financing and the belief that one cannot afford school is the number one reason that students do not attend college. In a recent survey, over 30% of students claimed they did not attend college because they did not think they could afford it. Additionally, the survey found that nearly 20% of students left college before completion because of financial barriers. The 2019 Student Financial Wellness Survey conducted by Trellis Research found that 70% of students at a 4-year school are worried about having enough money to pay for school, and a quarter say they do not have a plan to pay for the next semester.
With this in mind, we can see that the greatest barrier to college completion may in fact be a lack of financial preparedness and not academic preparedness, as we have believed for so long. To shift the narrative for both students and schools, we need to cut through the complexity of the funding journey to unlock every dollar possible and identify a sustainable funding path towards graduation.
Sounds easy right? I am not so naïve to think that this is an easy challenge to undertake; however, I am passionate enough about higher education – when completed – being the single best investment one can make in their future. Let’s not try to tear down the entire system at once; instead, we can take some simple steps to ensure better access to information and strive to solve the completion crises students face today.
Let’s Start With Communication
Did you know that 38% of students who face financial difficulties don’t speak to anyone at the school about it? Of those who do, 57% seek advice from someone OUTSIDE of the financial aid office at their institution. This is crazy to me that the office best equipped to handle financial difficulties is not the first stop for students. Instead, students go to academic advisors or faculty 62% of the time. I have thought a lot about why this might be, and I have come up with one reason – relationships.
Financial aid offices are incredibly busy. They are stretched thin and under-resourced in a time when federal, state, and institutional compliance has become more complex, and student populations have become more diverse. This leaves them very little time to spend counseling, building trust, and personal relationships with students.
This is crazy when you think about the types of information and conversations aid officers need to have with students and their families. These can be some of the most personal, emotional, and often embarrassing conversations one must undertake. Discussions about divorce, separation, death of a parent or spouse, job loss, paternity, child support, public assistance, food insecurity, and financial challenges are all topics that have come up in conversations I have had with students. These are difficult topics for students and their parents. Topics that most of us define as personal because we want to keep them to ourselves and not share them with every stranger on the street.
The conversations can bring up feelings of shame, confusion, fear, and depression that are all roadblocks to students raising their hands and asking for help. How do we help bridge this gap and remove the albatross from students’ necks? Here are 3 reasons why a virtual assistant is the best solution:
Cries For Help Come At All Times Of The Day And Night
37% of people would use a bot to get a quick answer in emergencies. Give students a safe place to ask questions and access information whenever the mood strikes them. Don’t worry, I am not suggesting that you keep offices open 24x7. Instead, consider using a virtual assistant – the employee who never sleeps. An AI-powered virtual assistant can help students get answers to questions about resources and assistance based on their personal situation.
Enter The Judgment-Free Zone
Why do people like Artificial Intelligence? There is no judgment when you are talking to your virtual assistant. Imagine all the questions you have asked Siri, Google, or Alexa. I guarantee there are A LOT of questions you would not ask the person sitting next to you at work. Today’s college students are accustomed to using intelligent virtual tools. Given the emotional nature of conversations about financial difficulties, providing this safe space may be the single biggest thing you can do for those who would otherwise not come forward. Though it should not be this way, there is a stigma and embarrassment that people feel around financial struggles. Feelings of inadequacy and failure make it difficult for some people to come forward and ask for help. You can boost enrollment, retention, and yes, graduation rates by giving students access to a safe space when it comes to questions about financing their education, and emergency assistance.
Make Time For Real Counseling
Many employees in financial aid are called “counselors,” but how much time do they really have to counsel students? Very little, because their to-do lists are filled with calls and emails that contain basic questions that are answered thousands of times each year. IBM has estimated that 80% of standard questions can be answered by a bot. An AI-powered virtual assistant will prioritize conversations and students that need personalized counseling, and seamlessly hand off those students over to advisors. A SalesForce survey found that 64% of agents with AI chatbots spend most of their time solving complex problems through conversation monitoring and escalation. Counselors are freed up to spend quality time with students who have complex situations.
Students need real, personalized answers. Watch these students’ journeys to find answers to pressing questions on their school website, a chatbot, and a virtual assistant. And if you’d like to see how a virtual assistant can turn your Financial Aid Office into an enrollment and retention machine, talk to us.