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Texas launches artificial intelligence platform to assist college-bound students with financial aid

Higher education officials and agencies are working together to save college enrollment and admissions from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by bolstering support for high school students and their college counselors and advisers.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and Dallas nonprofit Educate Texas are launching Future Focused, an initiative aimed toward maintaining enrollment rates at colleges throughout the state by providing on-demand resources related to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which students are required to complete to receive federal and some state aid. ADVi — short for “adviser” — is a virtual advising chat box that uses artificial intelligence to answer questions about the FAFSA and related deadlines, and directs users to videos and resources.

Students and counselors can use the chat box to ask questions about FAFSA application deadlines and resources at any time and as many times as they need, said Jerel Booker, the coordinating board’s assistant commissioner for college readiness and success. For more complicated questions, live counselors will be available during the day. They can also text the word “college” to the number 512-829-3687 to receive additional resources related to enrolling in college.

“We’re trying to use the same techniques social media (platforms) use to engage students,” said John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Educate Texas.

The initiative began pre-COVID, Keller said, but the need for FAFSA-related resources was amplified during the pandemic.

College enrollment across Texas is down 3 percent from last fall, and the state also received 18 percent less completed FAFSAs in October compared to last year.

As of Nov. 20, 874,960 FAFSA applications have been filed across the country for the high school class of 2021 — 16 percent fewer than the number completed this time last year for the class of 2020, according to the National College Attainment Network.

“That’s a warning sign — a cause for concern,” Keller said, noting that a decrease in FAFSA completion can indicate a decrease in enrollment. “What we’re concerned about is we have many more students not enrolling across the state than we’d expect or hope to see right now.”

John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas, said there are more than 350,000 Texas high school seniors for the 2019-2020 academic year at risk of not being able to enroll in college.

African-American, Hispanic and low-income students — many of which are underrepresented at higher education institutions — are particularly at risk, Keller added.

“Our high school counselors and college admission officers are working so hard to engage 350,000 students, but it’s incredibly hard in time of COVID-19,” Fitzpatrick said.

College advisers and recruiters have had to pivot, resorting to online or virtual techniques to reach their students. Meanwhile, students and their families have experienced hardships of their own during the pandemic, which might have rendered filling out an application or applying to college a lower priority. But for those who are still looking to attend college, the FAFSA is particularly important — allowing students to assess what financial aid is available to them, which might determine which colleges they will or can afford to attend.

The ADVi platform could be especially helpful for students who are filling out the application for the first time, or for the many students who cannot get in-person assistance or reminders from other students and counselors when they need it, Booker added.

The goal, however, is “not to totally eliminate human contact, but to help the counselors do it online” during a time when many resources are being offered in remote formats or virtually, Booker said.

“It’s not going to fix everything, but we think it can help,” Fitzpatrick said.

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