Imagine you are seventeen years old, the first person in your family with plans to go to college. You’ve heard that filling out the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – is the first step to get help paying for your education, but you have no clue where to begin. None of the adults in your life have gone through the process and you don’t know where to turn for help, especially now that your high school is closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. With so much on your plate, figuring out the FAFSA on your own feels overwhelming.
Enter our new chatbot.
This SMS chatbot developed by Benefits Data Trust (BDT) and the College Board to provide students with free, personalized FAFSA assistance. Powered by Twilio, the chatbot helps students overcome common stumbling blocks to completing the FAFSA – the gateway to billions of dollars in grants and scholarships. At a time when schools are closed and FAFSA workshops have been cancelled across the nation to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the need for virtual assistance is greater than ever.
From November 2019 to February 2020, the chatbot was piloted with 380 high school seniors from across the nation who opted in through the College Board Opportunity Scholarship program. Students texted the chatbot for help with questions like:
- “I made a FAFSA account, but I don’t know what to do after that.”
- “What documents do I need?”
- “I don’t know what to put down for taxes.”
- “Can an undocumented student apply for FAFSA?”
- “I’m confused on the parent financial section…What if my parent has no job?”
- “I live with my grandparents. Do they count as parents?”
The chatbot uses natural language processing and machine learning to quickly understand and respond to students’ questions with digestible, easy-to-understand guidance. As students interact with the chatbot, it learns more about the wide range of issues with which it’s trained to help and that improves her responses.
Initial results indicate the chatbot’s potential for reaching students in need of FAFSA assistance. The majority of participants in the pilot were in low–income households (63%) and were students of color (70%). Participants who engaged with the chatbot asked about two questions on average.
Every student’s situation is unique, which is why the chatbot is designed to offer accessible, individual support. Research has shown that personalized FAFSA assistance dramatically increases college enrollment and persistence.
Although there has been major progress simplifying the FAFSA in recent years, many students still struggle to complete it. As a result, eligible students miss out on billions of dollars in federal, state and college grants and scholarships each year. In 2018, for example, about 2 in 5 high school graduates did not complete the FAFSA – leaving billions of dollars on the table from Pell Grants, which provide up to $6,345 per year for low-income students.
There is evidence that the turmoil surrounding COVID-19 is making it even more difficult for students to complete the FAFSA. FAFSA filings dropped in every state the week of March 13, compared to the same week in 2019. To help provide personalized assistance to students during the pandemic, the chatbot will become available to students of all ages outside of the Opportunity Scholarships program over the next month. And given the pandemic’s impact on the finances of millions of Americans, soon the chatbot will also help students whose financial situation has changed to request special consideration (“Professional Judgement”) from colleges where they have been accepted.
Getting financial aid can have a serious impact on college enrollment, persistence, and completion, with long-term effects on income later in life. When looking at full-time workers over the age of 25, the median earnings in 2018 for someone with a bachelor’s degree were 61 percent higher than someone with a high school diploma ($65,400 vs. $40,500). By helping students complete the FAFSA and unlock available financial aid, the chatbot aims to open the door to economic mobility.
From May to September, the chatbot will be available to any student who needs help with the FAFSA. Starting October 1, high school students in the Class of 2021 will be able to sign up for FAFSA assistance from the chatbot by registering for the College Board Opportunity Scholarship program at cb.org/opportunity and opting in from their account.