Texting Chatbot Helps More High School Students to Apply for College Aid

| By: Neeta Sonalkar, Director of Higher Education Innovation

Text message reminders, combined with assistance in an accessible format, can have a powerful impact on how college students engage with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), keeping them on track to complete their application and making access to college more equitable. That is the key finding of our third year of delivering Wyatt®, a text message-based chatbot, to high school seniors nationwide. 

Benefits Data Trust (BDT) created Wyatt in 2019 to help aspiring college students navigate and complete the FAFSA, which is the gateway to financial aid for many and a critical step toward college enrollment. Unfortunately, too many students struggle to complete the application without additional support, preventing them from accessing financial assistance they may be eligible for and ultimately creating barriers to economic mobility. 

In 2022-23, our third year of delivering Wyatt to high school seniors, our research team — in collaboration with the College Board — evaluated student engagement and outcomes to understand how students use Wyatt, their experience with the chatbot, and how it influences FAFSA completion rates.

Key Findings: FAFSA Completion 

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As in previous years, we continue to see that Wyatt usage is associated with higher FAFSA completion rates when controlling for multiple factors, including race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and parental education. Our findings also showed that gains in completion rates among Wyatt-users were greatest in October and decreased over time. Early completion is important to make sure students meet any state or institution deadlines that may fall early in the year, as well as to ensure they are eligible for aid disbursed on a first-come first-served basis.   

Finally, we found that low-income users completed the FAFSA at higher rates — 56% — than non-low-income students, at only 37%. 

Key Findings: Student Engagement 

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Not only is it crucial for us to understand how Wyatt is helping students complete the FAFSA, but also who Wyatt is helping and how they engaged with the chatbot. We found that Wyatt-users were majority female, low-income, Hispanic, Black, Asian, and had lower rates of parental education than other students in the College Board Opportunity Scholarship program. This shows that tools like Wyatt help historically marginalized communities who often have less access to in-person support from college advisors or parents than their wealthier peers. 

Overall, Wyatt’s text-based communications were well-received and made it simple for students to engage with the chatbot. One student said, “I liked being able to text as a student with a lot going on... I check my email every day, but I miss some because I get so many emails per day. Texting was really easy.”

Key Findings: User Experiences

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To better understand user experiences, we deployed a survey to about 10,000 Wyatt users, yielding almost 1,500 responses, and conducted follow-up interviews with nine students. These qualitative analyses showed that, overall, Wyatt offered a positive and engaging experience for users. Students found Wyatt both helpful and user-friendly, and valued its reminders to keep them on track with their application. As far as how students preferred to engage with Wyatt, we found that that 87% of students preferred to chat with Wyatt through text messages rather than through a mobile app or a website chatbot. 

We also found that students appreciated Wyatt’s bi-weekly reminders, with 81% reporting that they liked the frequency at which they were sent. Not only that, but almost all students — 96% — were satisfied with the answers Wyatt provided to their questions. More than three-quarters of students said they would sign up for Wyatt again as a junior and some students expressed interest in using Wyatt to help them with the institutional aid applications, scholarships, and loans. 

Each year, we learn more about Wyatt’s impact as well as how students found success through using the chatbot. By learning how Wyatt impacts overall FAFSA completion, what students are engaging with Wyatt, and how they used the chatbot to help them access financial aid, we can continue to improve their experience and Wyatt’s abilities. 

Our Higher Education Innovation Team is currently exploring opportunities to use Wyatt in new contexts and alongside new partners. To learn more, visit www.GetFAFSAHelp.org.