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For aspiring college students, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — the gateway to financial aid — is a critical step toward college enrollment. Yet many students struggle to complete the application without additional support, preventing many from accessing assistance they may be eligible for. During the pandemic, about 250,000 fewer seniors across the classes of 2020 and 2021 completed the FAFSA, and subsequently, college enrollment rates dropped, particularly for low-income students and students of color. The impact is enormous: 46% of high school seniors in the class of 2021 were unable to complete the FAFSA, leaving $3.75 billion in federal Pell grants on the table.
Enter Benefits Data Trust (BDT), which builds innovative solutions to streamline and help individuals navigate complicated benefit application processes. In 2019, BDT launched Wyatt℠, a text-message-based chatbot that provides college-bound students with free, personalized assistance to complete the FAFSA. Research has shown that personalized assistance improves filing rates, but this assistance has proved difficult to scale. That’s where Wyatt can help.
Wyatt launched for a third year in October 2021 and is available to high school seniors participating in the College Board Opportunity Scholarships through February 2022.
To learn more about what it took to build an innovative tool like Wyatt, we sat down with Julia Kosov, Outreach Analytics Manager and Jessica Westbrook, Content Analyst to hear from them about their work to create the chatbot.
Building a chatbot sounds complicated, to say the least. What were the first steps you took to begin working on Wyatt? What tools and technology go into creating a chatbot?
Wyatt is an AI chatbot – I know AI stands for artificial intelligence, but what does that really mean?
One student who used Wyatt said, “I almost couldn’t tell that you were a robot for a bit…” How is Wyatt able to respond and answer questions so effortlessly?
What was the testing and training process like to ensure that Wyatt was ready before it was available to students?
What is your favorite thing about seeing Wyatt in action?
If there were no time, budget, or resource restrictions, what’s one thing you would want to improve or change about the tool?
How did you come up with the name Wyatt for the chatbot?
As Wyatt continues to assist students nationwide, we look forward to studying its impact and exploring how Wyatt can evolve to help even more students and potentially guide them through a broader set of topics related to paying for college.
Julia Kosov is the Outreach Analytics Manager at BDT and has been with the organization for three years. Julia works with the data, product, and implementation teams to develop scalable outreach solutions. In her spare time, she likes to read, play games, and spend time with her cat.
Jessica Westbrook is the Content Analyst at BDT and has been with the organization for two years. Jessica researches, tests, and crafts the outreach materials BDT sends to clients to encourage them to apply for benefits they’re likely eligible for. In her free time, she enjoys transforming her fixer upper house through DIY projects and relaxing with her dog.
 National College Attainment Network (NCAN). FAFSA Completion Declines Nearly 5%; National Loses 270K FAFSAs Since 2019
 National College Attainment Network (NCAN). NCAN Report: $3.75 Billion in Pell Grants Goes Unclaimed for High School Class of 2021