Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo. Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage

ATLANTA — Georgia State University is leveraging AI-powered chatbots and predictive data analytics to create a new student-advising system that has significantly boosted graduation rates.

Why it matters: It's well known that personalized, timely attention plays a major role in graduation rates at all grade levels. But the students who most need that support are often the least likely to get it.

"What's insidious about it is that it happens in silence, one by one, and we didn't always know why. For four generations, the model has been that navigating college is on the student to figure out. If you do, you'll do fine. If you don't, you'll slip through the cracks."
— Tim Renick, senior vice president of student success at Georgia State University

Zooming in: A majority of students at GSU, a public university of about 54,000 based in downtown Atlanta, are from groups that have higher than average drop-out rates: 60% are nonwhite, 30% are first-generation college students and nearly 60% receive support from Pell Grants.

  • In 2011, about 6,000 students dropped out every year.
  • After data analysis of 10 years of students records, the university identified 800 risk factors and overhauled its student advising system to spot them early and respond in real time.

How it works: Students can text questions — like: "What if I don't have my immunization records?" or "What is a subsidized student loan?" — to GSU's chatbot. AI then pulls the right answer out of a database or sends it to staff to answer.

  • The chatbot, named "Pounce" after the mascot, fielded more than 200,000 questions within 3 months of its 2015 launch.
  • About 80% of students are talking to the chatbot on a regular basis, with students sending 70-80 queries on average.
  • First-generation college students disproportionately benefit from the chatbot, Renick noted, likely because they are often more reluctant to ask questions in person, and many work on top of taking classes. That explains why a large portion of questions come in around 1 am.

GSU quadrupled the number of academic advisors on staff to respond to the flood of student queries and more closely track their progression. The student-advisor ratio, which was 800 to 1 before launching the chatbot, is now 300 to 1.

  • An algorithm identifies a "predicted risk level" for each student, based on factors like their major, class schedule, grades and faculty feedback.
  • If a student is at risk of falling behind or dropping out, advisors can reach out with personalized emails, text messages or in-person meetings.
  • "The easiest way to have an impact is with B to C students who fly under the radar," said Allison Calhoun-Brown, who oversees GSU's advisor center. "We can strategically target them at the first sign they are going off track."
  • For eligible students who are close to graduation but can't enroll in senior year classes due to an unpaid tuition bill, GSU also gives "retention grants" to ensure they can continue. GSU awards about 3,000 grants annually — the average of which is about $900.

The impact: GSU has narrowed the graduation gap between white, affluent students and those from less-privileged backgrounds. Its overall 6-year graduation rate (now 54%) rose 23% over the past 15 years.

  • For low-income, African American and Hispanic students, the graduation rates shot up by over 30%, bringing these groups in line with — and even above, in some cases — the rest of the student body for 5 consecutive years.

The bottom line: It's also been a financial boon — every percentage point added to the school's graduation is worth about $3 million in additional revenue.

  • "Not only is it the moral thing to do, it's the prudent thing to do," Renick said.

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