A few months ago, a colleague and I stopped at a South California community college to drop off some items for the staff in the financial aid office. We hadn’t visited the school before so after parking our car, we began to wander the campus not knowing exactly where we were going. I quickly pointed to an office on the second floor and said, “pretty sure that’s it up there.”
“How do you know?” my colleague asked.
“It has a line out the door,” I replied.
Sure enough, the crowd was at the financial aid office. There was a long line of bored students standing around, staring at their phones as they idly texted, played games, checked social media. In the background, staff buzzed back and forth, trying to answer questions from confused students who made it to the front of the line.
Students Need a Better Support System
While this might not represent your aid office all the time, most financial aid directors I talk to can definitely relate to the image painted above. Supporting students in today’s environment is challenging. Students expect immediate answers, they want to access information whenever and wherever they are. And more schools are using online courses to extend their offerings, which only increases the challenge of supporting students who can’t ever come to the office for advising or basic support.
Wait time—also known as Average Speed to Answer—matters: most callers will wait a maximum of 90 seconds on hold before hanging up. And about 34% of callers who hang up won’t call back, ever. I started thinking, could a virtual assistant help financial aid offices extend their support to students? It was an idea that wouldn’t require increasing staff headcount or implementing costly and complicated phone systems or queueing systems. It was an idea that meant no more long lines of students standing outside the door, or upset parents waiting on the phone. A virtual assistant simply made so much sense.
The Power of a Financial Aid Chatbot
Retail and hundreds of other industries already use chatbots to provide 24/7 support to customers. Some of them are so intuitive, so well-crafted, that it might take you a few minutes to realize you’re chatting with a computer. An intelligent chatbot understands human language and uses that context to provide better solutions on demand. Why not extend that same support to students?
Many in the higher ed community have come to realize that it’s no longer enough for a school to put frequently asked questions (FAQs) on websites and expect students and parents to navigate and search them—and digest the answers appropriately. Innovative institutions are looking at ways to use machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide better, faster, more consistent service to students. The power of these new technologies is harnessed through a chatbot, an intelligent interface that converses with the user.
Current higher education-focused chatbots typically struggle to provide student support because they mainly use rules-based technology and the only content available is canned, predefined FAQ’s. Today’s bots don’t have access to individual student data without a lot of time consuming and expensive integration development (sound familiar?).
CampusLogic: Putting the AI in FinAid
As CampusLogic tackles the problem of on-demand student and parent support, we envision a virtual financial aid advisor more powerful than a chatbot. Our chatbot vision melds Microsoft’s industry leading AI and chatbot tools with our deep domain expertise in financial aid and the data from our Student Financial Success Platform. The end result will remove routine support and automate common tasks in a way that looks and feels authentic, personalized, and accurate.
Our virtual advisor will seamlessly handle predefined and customizable FAQ’s about financial aid and scholarships—all highly personalized based on student information system data thanks to integration. Beyond just being an FAQ search engine, our virtual advisor will also be able to query data in real-time across our student financial success platform to guide students through multiple friction points in the financial aid process. Picture a virtual advisor able to clearly explain an award letter to a student, or guide her through the verification process, or remind him about scholarship opportunities he qualifies for.
We see a financial aid office where the volume of phone calls, emails, and students standing in line to ask routine questions your staff has answered a thousand times before are eliminated. In this AI-driven office, students come to your office for deeper advising that leads to student financial success. In this world, a virtual financial aid advisor answers student questions using real-time data and, when appropriate, seamlessly hands-off to a living, breathing FA professional.
In that world, I will have to ask for directions to the financial aid office on my next visit.