Media Coverage: Texting chatbot helps high school seniors complete FAFSA

| By: Chanel Hill, Tribune Staff Writer

A texting chatbot is helping high school seniors complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Wyatt, which is available to students until the end of February, answers students questions such as troubleshooting the FSA (Federal Student Aid) ID process, understanding whose income to report, what to do if students or families have special circumstances and more.

The chatbot is the only nationally available tool that provides both reminders and personalized assistance via Artificial Intelligence to students completing the FAFSA.

“Wyatt is a free chatbot that answers students' questions about the FAFSA over a text message,” said Neeta Sonalkar, Benefits Data Trust director of higher education innovation.

“When students sign up for Wyatt they get bi-weekly reminder texts encouraging them to complete the FAFSA,” she said. “If they have questions they can reply back to chat with Wyatt and get help and answers to their questions.

“We’ve served about 30,000 students nationally to date,” she added. “About half of those students identify as Black or hispanic and the majority of their families have low income.”

According to the National College Attainment Network, 90% of students who file the FAFSA enroll in college after graduating from high school, versus only 55% for those who do not.

Only two-thirds of high school seniors complete the FAFSA each year, leaving $2-3 billion in federal aid unclaimed.

Sonalkar said Wyatt was created to help fill that gap and help students go to college.

“We created Wyatt to make sure that all students can complete this really important information,” Sonalkar said. “We know from research that personalized assistance works, but not all students have access to that type of support.

“We saw that students who used Wyatt were completing the FAFSA at much higher rates than students who weren't using Wyatt,” she added. “In our second year, 55% of students completed the FAFSA using Wyatt versus 31% of students who didn’t.”

Launched in 2019, Wyatt was created through a partnership between the College Board and Benefits Data Trust, a national nonprofit that helps connect people to public assistance.

Wyatt is currently available to high school seniors who are participating in College Board's Opportunity Scholarships program.

The program guides students through six college planning steps including building a college list, practicing for the SAT, improving your SAT score, narrowing down a college list based on academic safety, match and reach , completing the FAFSA and applying to colleges.

“The scholarship program, which is run by the College Board, rewards students' efforts to plan and pay for college with Campus to Win Scholarships,” Sonalkar said.

“For example, when students complete the FAFSA they get entered into a lottery to win a $500 scholarship,” she added. “If students complete all six steps in the program they have a chance at winning a $40,000 scholarship.”

Sonalkar said they are constantly thinking of ways to make Wyatt even better.

“We’re exploring whether there are ways to help juniors plan and pay for college earlier on,” Sonalkar said.

“While juniors can’t start the FAFSA until the fall of their senior year, they can definitely take steps like creating a FSA ID and start talking with their parents about how to pay for college earlier on," she said.

“We’re exploring how we can help them do that,” she added. “We’re also exploring whether there’s a role for Wyatt to help college students renew their FAFSA so they can stay enrolled and graduate.”

Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune on January 18, 2022.