Helping Students Pay Balances and Get Financial Aid
Director of Student Success Technologies
Bakersfield College is a trailblazer. The 110-year-old California community college is determined to stay ahead of the technology curve and meet its students whey they are.
The college was part of Ocelot’s beta chatbot program in 2017. Bakersfield was one of six colleges testing out the chatbot technology before it was commercially available to other institutions.
Initially, Bakersfield focused on financial aid, an area of incredible importance to students and the college. Over time, as the college needed a multichannel solution that could work for every department and office, serving tens of thousands of students, the chatbot was expanded institution-wide.
Bakersfield College expanded Ocelot’s chatbot campus-wide in May 2020, branding it “RenegadeBot” after the college’s mascot, the Renegade. Since then, the chatbot has answered more than 217,000 questions from users on Bakersfield’s website — leading to a 30% reduction in inbound emails and phone calls, according to college officials.
In 2021, Bakersfield added Ocelot’s innovative AI-powered two-way text messaging feature for its Student Services communications.
The texting feature was “tremendously successful,” says Daniel Hall, Director of Student Success Technology at Bakersfield. The immediate success is why academic departments wanted to get in on the action and use text campaigns as well. Now, Ocelot’s text messaging is used across all education pathways for enrollment management.
Scaling the Chatbot from One Department to Many
Ocelot’s chatbot for the financial aid function at Bakersfield College was a game changer starting on the day it launched in 2017.
At least 75% of the institution’s large, diverse student population receives some kind of financial aid. That means the folks who manage this service are inundated with questions (and a formidable workload).
“We really wanted to connect with the students on an individual level and reduce barriers for them if they weren’t able to come in — or just reach them on different types of platforms,” says Jennifer Achan, the school’s Executive Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships.
Hall arrived at the college in mid-2019 and immediately heard from several other departments that were overwhelmed with the volume of emails and phone calls they received. They did not have the manpower to address them all, said Hall.
Hall began thinking about chatbots as part of the solution after noticing them on a variety of websites, including those of other educational institutions. But he wasn’t really familiar with the Financial Aid Department’s experience with Ocelot. He did some research on chabots, and brought his initial findings to the Student Services team.
There was interest, but not a lot of commitment to move forward — until COVID-19 upended everything.
The pandemic “really helped to make my case,” says Hall. “The idea of a chatbot was easy at that point.”
In the midst of lockdown and an unprecedented shift to remote learning, Bakersfield administration knew it would be invaluable to have a 24/7 way to answer students’ questions.
They considered at least two other chatbots, but Ocelot was a preferred option based on its proven track record with the Financial Aid department.
The team at Ocelot “was very responsive to our needs and questions, which spoke volumes about them,” Hall said. “It was a known entity to us. Largely for that reason, we were able to decide on going with Ocelot.”
Implementation and Integrations With Other Systems
While Financial Aid was already using the chatbot, Hall and his team were responsible for rolling out Ocelot across scores of offices and programs. They designated key people in each department to take responsibility for building out its knowledge base. Each point person spent just a few hours responding to various questions that the AI uses to “learn” how to reply to users.
“In less than a week, we had our knowledge bases built out — not perfectly, but enough to get us going,” Hall says. “We launched the chatbot very quickly. From there, we monitored the questions coming in [from users], which prompted us to update our responses and refine those knowledge bases.”
Less than two years later, they don’t spend much time on updates.
“A good rule of thumb is to try to go into the knowledge base at least twice a month to make sure the responses to the questions are still accurate and relevant to our students,” he adds. “But the more [effort] you spend making sure the responses are impactful, [the] more likely students will be able to make use of them.”
Ocelot’s integration with a host of applications and systems allows Bakersfield’s administration to reach students quickly and effectively.
“It’s so easy to pull data,” Achan says. “We work with [phone campaign software] Five9 and Ocelot side-by-side. While they’re on phone calls with students, they can send them information via text or chat. They can also send messages to isolated students or cohorts of students about admissions, registration, financial aid, parking, and other student services.”
The Text Big Thing
A text is one of the most direct ways to reach out to a community, especially busy students. (Pushing notifications to students’ phones is light years away from posting flyers in the cafeteria.)
Text messaging is remarkably effective: 98% of texts are opened, versus just 20% of emails. At least 90% of text messages are read within the first three minutes of receipt, and 82% of users report reading every single text message they get.
Since it was implemented in May 2021, Bakersfield has initiated over 800 unique text campaigns and sent over 75,000 texts. Its campaigns targeted specific student enrollment management needs and time-sensitive announcements, including:
- Virtual and in-person enrollment events
- Onboarding events
- TRIO and Kern Promise recruitment
- Recovery Grant recruitment
- Financial aid applications
- Late-start general education classes
- Program-specific late-start classes
- Newly opened sections
- Availability of tutoring and learning lab resources
- COVID precautions for on-campus students
- Graduation petitions
Bakersfield College also contacted students who:
- Were taking fewer than 12 units
- Had 30+ accumulated units
- Hadn’t yet completed their math and English requirements
- Dropped classes
For Financial Aid, Bakersfield’s campaigns amounted to over $1 million dollars in payments to the college — and more financial support for students, who were less likely to miss deadlines.
Ultimately, Ocelot is part of Bakersfield College’s broader strategy of innovative student engagement.
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