Let’s take a little walk down memory lane to 1984….
• Ronald Reagan was President
• “Like a Virgin” by Madonna was at the top of the charts
• The Supreme Court ruled that home use of a VCR to tape television was NOT a violation of Federal Copyright law
• The first untethered spacewalk occurred
• Terminator was released in theaters
How on earth do these things relate to Financial Aid? Trust me, they do. The events noted above were things that would impact North America—and the world—for generations. Catalysts of change, we still feel the impact of these events more than 30 years later. Each one was the starting point of disruption in society.
Skynet and financial aid
Why did I put Terminator on the list? Because it was one of the most memorable times when Artificial Intelligence (AI) was turned into a pop culture reference for mass audiences. Skynet was the perfect antagonist! You couldn’t see it, touch it, or kill it—intangibility gave it a huge sense of power, and fear. Even now I don’t know how to address Skynet—it, he, she—so very confusing. If you haven’t seen the movie, go watch it and come back in 107 minutes, you will thank me!
An advanced neural network and artificial intelligence system, Skynet gained access to millions of computers and networks. Skynet became self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern Time on August 29, 1997, and, frightened by Skynet’s abilities, the creators tried to deactivate it. Skynet went into self-preservation mode and tried to eliminate the ultimate threat to humans. Here’s where everything relates back to your world, Financial Aid readers.
Financial aid AI disruption: A win-win for you and your students
Right now, artificial intelligence is disrupting how you are recruiting, educating, supporting, and retaining students. In the same way that the VCR changed how we watched TV or the identification of the AIDS virus changed how we approached and talked about sex education and drug use, AI will continue to change everything about student financial success—what it is, how you approach it, where it happens, and why. Advice: don’t be afraid of the coming disruption, because it’s a win-win: for you and your students.
Imagine being responsible for 13,000 pages of regulations
Have you ever engaged with someone and thought, “I have likely forgotten more about financial aid than this person has ever known." I have, and I don’t say that in any type of disrespectful way. The financial aid industry is amazingly complex, nuanced, and highly regulated. Financial aid professionals are responsible for adhering to more than 15,400 pages of regulatory and sub-regulatory guidance, all of which need to be implemented to maintain an institution’s compliance. Broken down, those pages equal:
- 2,583 pages of regulations (34 CFR)
- 846 pages of Higher Education Act of 1965 (Title IV is 374 pages)
- 2,769 pages of 2021-2022 Federal Student Aid Handbook
- 1,552 Dear Colleague Letters from 1994 to 2018
- 7,667 Electronic Announcements from 1994 to 2022.
This is all before taking into account NCAA regulations, accrediting requirements, and institutional policies & procedures. It seems unreasonable to ask any one person to be responsible for adhering to more than 13,000 pages. (For context, War and Peace is only 1,225 pages.) But we do. Artificial intelligence enables schools to work smarter rather than harder, and offload some of the tedious burdens to free up more time for impactful, highly personalized conversations with students.
A world where student support is available 24/7
The wants, needs, and expectations of students are more complex. Long gone are the days when the “traditional” student is in the majority on campus. The National Center for Education Statistics identified seven characteristics common to nontraditional students, including attending college only part-time, having children or dependents other than a spouse, and being a single parent. According to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, more than 75% of all undergraduate students have at least one of the seven noted characteristics.
That means more students who are working during the day and tackling financial aid and college planning at night. Or students who are trying to grab a few tidbits of information while their child is napping. No longer do students have the luxury of coming into the aid office and waiting through a line to get their questions answered. Students need answers that are reliable, accurate, easily accessible and fast.
Answers on their schedule, not yours
Have you ever had a question pop into your head on a Friday afternoon and when you call the company or organization for help, you find out that their customer service office located on the east coast closed two hours ago, and won’t reopen again until Monday morning? I know I have, and it really makes me angry that I have to be on someone else’s schedule when I am paying for a service. Additionally, anxiety can set in causing more frustration. Now imagine that the person is a student, trying to get information about financial aid to make a decision that will potentially change their life—and will certainly affect their financial standing. Using AI to engage with students and answer some of their basic questions will help to relieve tension and anxiety.
Think about it this way: students trying to navigate financial aid who can’t easily find answers will likely make the decision that they cannot afford your institution—or that the process is just so exhausting that higher education isn’t meant for them.
Imagine a student who is debating dropping a class and then decides to call financial aid to figure out what the impact of that decision will be on his or her financial aid—I know they never actually do this, but just imagine. Now imagine the student picking up the phone, only to be placed on extended hold or, worse still, is told the office is closed for the day. We can hope that they will call back, but it’s more likely that the student has already given up and dropped the class through the portal—unaware that the decision has altered his or her full time-status, and Pell and scholarship dollars have been lost. It’s a harsh and unnecessary lesson for a student to learn. And it’s a situation that could have been resolved very differently if the student had access to a virtual director of financial aid answering questions exactly like this, 24/7/365.
ATMs didn’t kill bank jobs, AI won’t kill financial aid offices
I recently heard Jaime Casap, Google’s Education Evangelist speak. If you ever have the chance to catch him live, you should make that happen. During his session at CampusLogic's EmpowerED in 2019, he spoke about how the banking industry now employs more people than before Automated Teller Machines (ATM) were introduced. Isn’t it crazy to think that we have more people working in banks today when the fear was that ATM automation would reduce employees? Jaime discussed how ATMs changed the banking industry, freeing up time for bank employees to have in-depth, meaningful conversations with customers about savings, retirement, and financial planning.
The same can easily be said of AI and education. I don’t know of a single individual who got into financial aid as a career to answer the same questions hundreds of times a day. Even to this day, when I talk about the difference between a subsidized and unsubsidized loan, I can feel myself going on autopilot. Nor do I ever wish to have to explain that loans are just as much a form of financial aid as a grant or scholarship—maybe not the desired form of financial aid, but financial aid. Technology is here to help counselors and aid offices answer those standard questions, freeing up time for them to pursue more meaningful activities that support student success.
Embrace the Catalyst of Change: Financial Aid AI
AI is truly a catalyst of change, and it’s knocking on the door of financial aid. It’s time to take advantage of technology to answer questions and help guide students and parents through the financial aid process. It’s time to say hello to a virtual director of financial aid-powered ChatBot that will ease the burden on your aid office. Imagine what you can do with the time you’ll save when your ChatBot reduces phone and email questions by 30%, simultaneously increasing your student experience and reducing stress? Staff satisfaction rises when financial aid counselors get to truly counsel students, providing more personalized and higher-value interactions with at-risk students.
A virtual Chatbot will do the heavy lifting of those 13,000 pages I mentioned earlier, so you can focus more on informing borrowing decisions and helping students understand the amount being borrowed, options to reduce student debt, and ensuring the sustainability of their funding. AI will help you increase completion by making sure that students are aware of all of their funding options and the obligations they will entail while ensuring that the student will be able to complete their degree. AI is a disruption, and you have a front-row seat to it.