Education

Georgia State Uses A Chatbot To Attack ‘Summer Melt’

Georgia State University uses a chatbot called "Pounce" to help answer students' questions.
Georgia State University uses a chatbot called "Pounce" to help answer students' questions.
Credit Austin Birchell

Research shows between 10 and 40 percent of enrolled freshmen don’t show up to campus in the fall. It’s a phenomenon known as ‘summer melt.’

Many first-generation or low-income students are confused by financial deadlines and other requirements, and often, they don’t have anyone to ask for help.

Austin Birchell could have been one of those students.

Austin Birchell used Georgia State’s "Pounce" to figure out what happened to his Zell Miller scholarship. One digit in his Social Security number was incorrect, and the grant hadn't been applied to his account.
Austin Birchell used “Pounce” to figure out what happened to his Zell Miller scholarship. One digit in his Social Security number was incorrect, and the grant hadn’t been applied to his account. (Martha Dalton/WABE)

Two years ago, he developed a plan to pay for college. He worked hard to earn the Zell Miller scholarship, a version of HOPE that covers tuition at Georgia’s public colleges for students who meet certain academic requirements.

Birchell knew he met the scholarship’s requirements, but as the first day of school drew closer, the money hadn’t come through.

“I was checking my Georgia State student account, and I still had my full tuition to be paid,” he says.

Birchell is a first-generation college student. He was counting on the scholarship to pay tuition.

I didn’t take any loans out because I wasn’t expecting to,” Birchell says. “So, I just was not prepared to pay the full amount.”

A lot of students find themselves in similar situations in the summer, says Lindsay Page, an education professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has researched summer melt. She says it can be easy for upcoming freshmen to feel lost in the summertime.

Students are no longer part of their high school community,” Page says. “They have yet to join their college community. So, it’s not really obvious if they had a question where they might go to have that question answered.”

Page teamed up with GSU to develop the program that helped Birchell and other students. It’s a chatbot called “Pounce” that can text back and forth with students.

The Pounce system would ask students, ‘What questions do you have? What can we help with?’” Page says.

"Pounce" is a chatbot created for GSU students to answer questions about deadlines and other requirements. (Austin Birchell)
“Pounce” is a chatbot created for GSU students to answer questions about deadlines and other requirements. (Austin Birchell)

Some questions can be answered automatically. Others are more complex. Because Pounce is integrated with GSU’s student information system, Page says students can still get answers to complicated questions.”

“The system could recognize that and send the student’s question or issue to a human counselor in the university,” she says.

Through that process, Birchell figured out what happened to him: one digit in his Social Security number was wrong.

“So then it didn’t connect to my student profile and I wasn’t getting my scholarship,” he says.

If he hadn’t figured that out, Birchell says, he may not have been able to start school in the fall of 2016. However, he straightened things out and received his scholarship. This fall, he’ll be a junior majoring in political science.

Tim Renick, GSU’s vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success, said Pounce has helped a lot of students like Birchell.

We thought for the incoming freshmen [in fall of 2016] that maybe [we’d] have a few thousand questions answered via this new platform,” he said. “We had over 200,000 questions answered in [a] three-month period.”

Using technology in this way isn’t widespread yet. And “summer melt” isn’t a problem at every school. For example, it’s not an issue at the Georgia Institute of Technology. However, some schools, like the University of Memphis, West Texas A&M and Arizona State, have developed programs similar to Pounce to keep students from “melting away” over the summer.