We’ve all struggled with filling out applications, and the stress of trying to understand a complicated question doesn’t encourage our pursuit to complete the form. But what if we all had access to a chatbot that could answer our questions in real time and help clarify the complexities of the application?
Students now have that opportunity, thanks to a new chatbot designed to help with filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) by text message. The tool was developed by Benefits Data Trust (BDT), a nonprofit organization that creates innovative ways for individuals to access public benefits, and the College Board.
The chatbot is powered by Twilio, a cloud communications platform, and addresses common barriers that students face when completing the FAFSA, such as troubleshooting the FSA ID, deciding whose income to report, and more. This chatbot uses AI technology to quickly process students' questions and respond with easy-to-understand guidance.
From May to September, the chatbot will be available to any students – including high school seniors, returning college students, or nontraditional applicants – who need help filling out the FAFSA. Starting Oct. 1, high school seniors will be able to sign up to use the tool through the College Board Opportunity Scholarships program.
FAFSA completion is strongly correlated with postsecondary enrollment. Without access to various types of federal, state, and/or institutional financial aid programs, many students are left with few options to pay for college.
However, despite the help that FAFSA can provide for students, only 62% of high school class of 2019 completed the FAFSA, according to the #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker.
With all the school closures and other disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer students are filling out the FAFSA compared to last year. Through April 30, there were 4.4% fewer FAFSA renewals total compared to last year; among Pell-eligible students that figure was -5.5%, according to an NCAN analysis of Federal Student Aid data.
Large-scale FAFSA completion efforts are happening across the country, like the chatbot from College Board and BDT.
NCAN sat down with the director of access initiatives at the College Board, Neeta Sonalkar, to discuss how this new chatbot can help students and their families. A transcript (edited for clarity) of the interview follows below.
NCAN: What are some of the College Board’s expectations for this new tool?
Neeta Sonalkar: FAFSA completion is so important for students, but it can be a complicated application to fill out. Research has shown that personalized assistance significantly impacts FAFSA completion, but that type of support isn’t easily accessible to all students. So, the College Board partnered with Benefits Data Trust to test the delivery of free FAFSA assistance at-scale. We wanted to make sure that students everywhere could get answers that are easy to understand to help them complete the form.
The College Board and BDT hope that students will use the tool to get answers that help them overcome major barriers to filling out the FAFSA, in a way that is tailored to the student experience, such as texting.
What information does the chatbot draw from to ensure responses to students are accurate?
The chatbot’s content draws directly from the Federal Student Aid (FSA) guidance and delivers the information to students in targeted, digestible ways. We also drew from best practices in behavioral science and research on major barriers to completion to craft the best responses for students.
For students who may have more complicated questions that require more attention than can be provided via text, what will students receive as a response?
If the chatbot can’t answer a student’s question, the student will be directed back to FSA website and helpline. However, the chatbot will first ask the student for other possible ways to rephrase the question so that the chatbot can try to answer it directly.
In addition, given the state of this pandemic, College Board has thought of several scenarios facing a student, given that many students are currently facing financial pressures. So if, for instance, a student needs to speak with a financial aid officer because their EFC (expected family contribution) is no longer accurate and the award package isn’t enough, the chatbot will link them to a script on how to request an appeal of their offer.
In the event that a student shares sensitive data (like Social Security numbers), will it be protected?
The chatbot does not store any personal information from students, including financial information or Social Security numbers that would jeopardize the privacy of that student. It’s coded to recognize sensitive information that students may possibly share; if the student happens to share this information, it tells the student it will not be recorded.
NCAN would like to thank Neeta Sonalkar for her time and insight into the design of this new chatbot geared to help more students complete the FAFSA and access postsecondary education.