AI Chatbot Limits Disruptions to Pursuing Higher Education

The Capital One Foundation is supporting Common App with a $1.4 million grant to help incoming college students avoid disruptions


While first-year college students are set to close out their freshman year this spring, disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led millions of other people to put their higher education dreams on hold. 

Surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau biweekly since Aug. 19, 2020 indicate that anywhere from 7.7 million to 10 million adults canceled plans to take postsecondary classes last fall because of financial constraints related to the pandemic.

For Marim Albajari, a high school senior living in New York City during the onset of the pandemic, lack of resources to navigate her application process suddenly made the prospect of starting college directly after graduation no longer feel like a sure thing.

Now a freshman at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Albajari soon found a remedy for that disconnect through using a free AI chatbot service, nicknamed “Oli”, that is offered by Common App

“Oli was my guardian angel,” Albajari said. “As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have the privilege to get the help I needed at home on my college journey. Even though Oli may be a robot, I felt like someone had my back.”

The Reach Higher Initiative, which merged with Common App in 2018, partnered with AdmitHub to develop the AI chatbot and College Advising Corps to offer counseling services to limit  “summer melt” — a term used to describe students who cancel plans to attend college before classes begin. 

Summer melt spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as high school graduates who immediately went on to college in fall 2020 declined nearly 7% compared with the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That drop was disproportionately felt by prospective students from low income families.

With the help of $1.4 million in grant funding from the Capital One Foundation to support the development and implementation of the AI chatbot, nearly 175,000 Class of 2020 and 500,000 Class of 2021 high school students applying to colleges through Common App have gained access to resources including online meetings with admissions officers and information on scholarship opportunities.

“The Capital One Foundation saw the need and stepped up to help by moving as quickly as possible to maximize the number of people that could be helped,” says Eric Waldo, executive director of the Reach Higher Initiative at Common App. “Our colleagues at The Foundation have gone over the top to connect us with resources across their organization and are continuing to help us achieve our mission to assist as many students as possible through its continued support to the Class of 2021 and beyond.”

Selected students were chosen from a random sample that emphasized first-generation college students, students from low-income families and students from diverse backgrounds.  

Resources provided by the AI chatbot have in turn saved those students nearly 18,000 hours that traditionally would’ve been spent consulting with an advisor.

“It is imperative that all graduating high school students be equipped with the tools necessary to avoid delaying their dreams of attending college,” says Andy Navarrete, Head of External Affairs at Capital One. “The playing field of opportunity in higher education has never been level, and the COVID pandemic only made that fact more clear. We're committed to continuing our efforts to support equitable access and persistence for aspiring college students of all backgrounds.”

That support from The Foundation comes alongside an initial $200 million, multi-year commitment from Capital One to advance socioeconomic mobility through the Capital One Impact Initiative.

Launched in October 2020, the Capital One Impact Initiative seeks to create a world where everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper through advocating for an inclusive society, building thriving communities and creating financial tools that enrich lives.

In addition to exclusively funding the initial launch of the AI chatbot for Class of 2020 students, Capital One is continuing to expand this resource by contributing both financially and through pro bono support from its tech associates. 

Since the chatbot’s inception, nine associates from Capital One have volunteered 500 hours of pro bono service to optimize the chatbot’s ability to help prospective college students. 

"As a first generation college student, I remember having a lot of the same questions that students interacting with the chatbot were seeking answers to,” says Elizabeth Souza, a Capital One associate who helped support the development of this chatbot. “Volunteering to support the development of this chatbot has been a tremendous opportunity to ensure equitable access to technology and resources for all." 

Those efforts in turn helped first-generation college students like Jennifer Sanchez, a La Verne, California-native now finishing her freshman year at the University of La Verne. 

With the help of resources provided by the AI chatbot, Sanchez earned a scholarship, received a grant to help offset the cost of housing and was connected with councilors at each university she received admission to best decide which school would be the best fit for her. 

“I was considering not even going to college because of how the pandemic financially impacted my family, but that chatbot gave me access to financial and educational resources that I would’ve never known existed without it,” Sanchez said. “I think of Oli like a friend. It supported me on my journey, like a friend would, every step of the way.”

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