What Impact Do Chatbots Have on Student Success in Higher Ed?
CSUNny is actually the second chatbot to work on behalf of CSUN. It was born in 2018 (replacing Ask Matty) on the heels of a statewide push to improve graduation rates within the California State University System. The effort, called Graduation Initiative 2025, has succeeded in pulling up flagging graduation rates through a variety of programs. At Northridge, a team led by Elizabeth Adams, then the university’s associate vice president of undergraduate studies, secured funding for a chatbot to aid in these efforts.
In the fall of 2018, CSUN opted to test CSUNny by allowing half of all first-time freshmen access to the chatbot and measuring their success against a control group that did not use CSUNny. Three years later, in the fall of 2021, students who were given access to CSUNny were “significantly more likely” to still be enrolled at the university and were more likely to have already graduated (5.6 percent) than their control group counterparts (3.6 percent).
Similar success was found by Georgia State University, one of the first institutions to use a chatbot with the stated goal of reducing summer melt by staying in contact with students when they were away from campus. Pounce, Georgia State’s chatbot, reduced summer melt by 22 percent and has continued to evolve since then. In 2021, Pounce was offered to a group of political science students to remind them of upcoming exams, assignment deadlines and more. Students who used the chatbot received better grades and were more likely to pass than those who did not.
What Makes a Higher Ed Chatbot Successful?
In the cases of CSUN and Georgia State, their chatbots began as an extension of their admissions offices. At CSUN, students were first introduced to CSUNny when they submitted their deposits. The chatbot then guided them through the rest of the enrollment process, reminding them to stay on top of financial aid applications and helping them stay connected until they visited campus for the first time.
CSUNny was and is monitored by humans and can direct students to those humans to answer questions it cannot. But one special power of chatbots seems to be that they’re close enough to human to forge a bond with students, yet not human enough to make them uncomfortable.
“Students recognize that it’s a bot, but they interact with the bot very differently and often very vulnerably because it’s not a human,” says David Dufault-Hunter, the associate vice president for enrollment services as CSUN. “They feel they can articulate and share stories that they wouldn’t necessarily do with a person.”