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Results from Wyatt's second year helping students complete the FAFSA and a look at BDT’s higher education initiatives.
In 2019, Benefits Data Trust (BDT) partnered with the College Board in an effort to help more students enroll in and graduate from college without burdensome debt by helping to streamline access to financial aid and public benefits.
One result from this collaboration is Wyatt℠, a text message based chatbot that helps high school seniors complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). BDT and the College Board made Wyatt available to students participating in the College Board Opportunity Scholarships, a program that rewards students’ efforts to plan and pay for college.
We’re thrilled to share the results of the second year of our pilot, which showed that Wyatt users completed the FAFSA at higher rates than non-users in the scholarship program, and were highly engaged with the chatbot. To help us make sense of the impact, we sat down with BDT’s new Director of Higher Education Innovation, Neeta Sonalkar.
What is the FAFSA and why is it important?
The FAFSA is the gateway to federal grants, work-study, low-cost loans, and many states and institutions use FAFSA data to assess eligibility for their own aid programs. Because completing the FAFSA unlocks financial aid from so many different sources, it is arguably the most important step any student can take in their college planning journey. In fact, 92% of students who file the FAFSA enroll in college by November after graduating from high school, versus only 51% for those who do not.
Despite this, only about two-thirds of high school seniors complete the FAFSA each year, leaving $2-3 billion in federal aid unclaimed — and low-income students are even less likely to file. Research has shown that personalized assistance can greatly increase FAFSA completion and college enrollment and persistence. We built Wyatt to help bridge the gap between students and the unclaimed federal aid left on the table each year.
Tell us more about Wyatt.
Launched in 2019 in partnership with the College Board, Wyatt is the only nationally available tool that provides both reminders and personalized assistance to students completing the FAFSA. A student’s experience chatting with Wyatt is informed by a few key features:
What are some of the results from the two-year pilot?
I’m happy to share that we saw promising results, despite all the challenges that students faced this past year during the pandemic. Not only did the 18,000+ Wyatt users report higher rates of FAFSA completion than the general population of students participating in the College Board Opportunity Scholarships program, but also:
What did students think of Wyatt?
Overall, the feedback we’ve received has been really positive! Students rated Wyatt’s helpfulness as a four out of five on average. Students voiced their feedback, too:
So, what’s next for Wyatt?
This coming school year, high school seniors participating in the College Board Opportunity Scholarships program will have access to Wyatt again, and we’ll continue to study its impact. Specifically, we’ll be looking to better understand Wyatt’s relationship to FAFSA completions apart from the characteristics of students who decide to use the tool. Longer-term, BDT is exploring opportunities for Wyatt to help even more students with new partnerships, and potentially help students navigate a broader set of topics related to paying for college. We’re eager to explore where Wyatt could go next!
Are there other higher education initiatives that your team is working on?
Absolutely – BDT recently partnered with two community colleges in Pennsylvania to pilot referral lines to our screening and application assistance services for public benefit programs. The Government Accountability Office estimates that nationally, 57% of college students likely eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are not enrolled. With input from many others in the field, we are working to streamline student access to SNAP and other benefits, and identify partnerships and strategies to connect more students to assistance so they can better afford healthy food, focus on their studies, and graduate at higher rates without burdensome debt.
How can people learn more or get involved?
I’m always eager to hear from people interested in pursuing this type of work so we can help make finances one less thing for students to worry about. Feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com.
Even for those not enrolled in the schools with which we have partnerships, BDT can screen and apply students, individuals, and families for public benefits. Visit our website to learn more.
 NerdWallet, 2018. $2.6B in Free College Money Went Unclaimed by 2018 Grads.
 National College Attainment Network (NCAN), 2017. An Analysis of the Relationship Between School District Poverty and FAFSA Completion in June 2016 and June 2017.
 United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), 2018. Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits.