Media Coverage: This free Philly-made chatbot can help students fill out the FAFSA app


Amid a pandemic causing a reported 79% increase in calls to Benefits Data Trust (BDT), the Center City-based nonprofit connecting people to public benefits announced that it had partnered with the College Board to create an SMS chatbot for any students who need assistance filling out college applications and the Free Application of Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The chatbot, named Penny, is powered by customer engagement platform Twilio and gives students free and personalized digital assistance. The tool is usually only available to students in the College Board Opportunity Scholarship Program, but because of hardships caused by COVID-19, it will be available to anyone who can benefit from it starting in May.

BDT Chief Strategy Officer Pauline Abernathy told the creation of Penny was an opportunity to supply the org’s expertise and technology to help students access federal, state and local aid such as grants, loans and scholarships. While College Board funded the initiative, BDT led the chatbot’s technical development.

“When the pandemic hit and we were hearing there was a need for more personalized assistance, we decided to make [the tool] available more broadly,” Abernathy said. “Historically, the way that people were helped to fill out the FAFSA was through in-person assistance and that’s obviously not available right now.”

The pandemic has caused a drop in FAFSA and scholarship applications, Abernathy said; theNational College Attainment Network reported that every state saw a decrease in their year-over-year completed FAFSA applications between March 13 and March 20. The report also said about 49% of high school seniors have filled out the FAFSA, but 450,000 more would still need to complete it in order to match last year’s cycle.

Without proper guidance, students could struggle to complete the application and miss grant opportunities as a result. By using language processing and machine learning to respond to students’ questions, Penny delivers guidance that’s easy to understand as well as helps students get special consideration of their financial aid applications from colleges.

The tool was piloted from November to February with 380 high school seniors who opted in through College Board’s scholarship program. Initial results showed that Penny was able to answer over 90% of students who each asked an average of two questions, according to BDT.

“In addition to making it available to broader audience more quickly than we anticipated, we’re also going to adapt Penny so that it can help students make appeals based on changes in their financial circumstances,” Abernathy said.

Students will be able to access the chatbot by texting “PENNY” to a mobile number once BDT establishes a landing page that describes the tool and how to opt in, a BDT spokesperson told Students must still complete the FAFSA on the Federal Student Aid website.

Republished from Philly. Read the original article.