Prior to the pandemic, there were already tremendous disparities in college enrollment for Black and Latinx students in the United States. The past two years have only added more challenges for the least-represented students to begin their postsecondary educational journeys.
In 2021, 270,000 fewer graduating high-school seniors completed the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Federal financial aid is a crucial component to getting students, especially those from lower-income backgrounds, into higher education. This troubling decline in FAFSA applications indicates that the students who need the most assistance are getting stuck at the first step.
That’s why Impact Labs brought together a team of community experts and Salesforce employee volunteers to co-create a solution that helps students navigate the FAFSA application.
Representatives from 15 organizations, including Morehouse College, Ivy Tech Community College, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, collaborated for six months to define design principles to promote equity in education. The Salesforce.org Impact Labs cohort then applied these principles to co-design and develop the Financial Aid Chatbot.
What is the Financial Aid Chatbot?
The Financial Aid Chatbot supports students as they complete the FAFSA by answering commonly asked questions about eligibility, providing guidance on every question in the application, and sending proactive reminders of upcoming local, state, and federal deadlines. Chatbots meet students where they are. Rather than being confined to advisor availability during specific business hours, a bot allows students to connect with assistance from their mobile device on their own time.
Kinnis Gosha, Division Chair for Experiential Learning and Interdisciplinary Studies at Morehouse College, helped inform the design for the chatbot to make it accessible to students.
Let’s take a look at the bot: A student is welcomed by a menu explaining the types of questions they can get assistance with.
Then they can figure out if they are eligible for financial aid. Students can also quickly look up key deadlines for submitting their applications and set reminders to keep them on track.
The Financial Aid Chatbot helps define key terminology found on the FAFSA application and breaks down complicated questions to help a student get unstuck while completing their application.
Students can access the chatbot whenever they need it, on their own schedule, and escalate to an advisor for further assistance if necessary.
What Specific Problem Does this Chatbot Solve?
One large barrier the Impact Labs cohort identified is the struggle students face when navigating financial aid: Specifically, getting the support that they need when they need it. There are many intersecting reasons a student may not complete their financial aid forms. But we know this: Filling out the FAFSA is complicated. It requires knowledge of technical financial terms and keeping track of multiple deadlines. Simplifying this complexity became the focus of this Impact Lab.
Through our research, we also learned that students really want to be able to help themselves, and prefer digital channels like bots as a first option. The Financial Aid Chatbot jumps in wherever students want to start, giving them quick and easy access to the information they need at any time of day. This bot solves the problem of students needing to access support outside of traditional avenues, provides accurate information to get them started, and can direct them to a person at their institution if they get stuck and need additional help, sending reminders along the way.
“Students don’t really like to ask for help or bug other people. They would much rather just look up the answer on their own. However, if it’s too difficult, they won’t do it,” said a college counselor from a nonprofit organization. Easing the complexity associated with financial aid is a huge step forward for equity and access to education for all.
The Financial Aid Chatbot content is open source, which allows organizations to customize it to their needs and expand on it for future iterations. It joins a suite of bots offered by Salesforce.org Education Cloud to support students and augment the services that institutions provide.
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