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Supporting Students and Institutional Goals with AI Technology

CSU Long Beach is a public, open-access university located just three miles from the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach, California. Founded in 1949, the institution is ranked first in the nation by Education Reform Now for upward social mobility and was named by the Wall Street Journal as #4 in the nation for campus diversity. Go Beach!
Long Beach, California
Institution Type
4 Year Public
Number of Students
Customer Spotlight

Nick Valdivia
Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships

For Cal State University Long Beach’s Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships Nick Valdivia, education isn’t limited to what is learned in the classroom

His team supports a unique school community, in which 73% of students receive financial aid, and many are first-generation college students. CSU Long Beach enrolls close to 20,000 PELL Grant recipients and almost 9,000 Zero Expected Family Contribution (EFC) students. 

As a result, the university is tasked with fielding an unusually high number of student questions about financial aid. When a student’s ability to pursue a degree is dependent on receiving aid, providing support and access to resources is a high-stakes responsibility.

“I’m a firm believer that understanding and learning about the financial aid process is so valuable for our students.” says Valdivia. When they leave the university with their degree, they know the basics to be successful after graduation from a financial perspective.”

The Challenge: Too Many Questions, Too Little Time

CSU Long Beach is an open access institution. The university processes approximately 100,000 applications per year. Students have diverse backgrounds and a broad range of interests, which naturally leads to a lot of questions. At peak times, CSU Long Beach’s admissions and financial aid offices have often been outmatched with questions and inquiries from current and prospective students. This can lead to delays in responding.

“During the summer, our phone lines were slammed,” explains Valdivia. As a result, students experienced long wait times on the phone, lagging responses to emails and would sometimes call multiple departments trying to find answers to their questions. The Admissions Office experienced similar challenges.

The Admissions and Financial Aid Offices were determined to solve their servicing struggles. The pandemic created even greater urgency. Together, along with the Registrar’s office, they started searching for solutions.

The Solution: Leveraging HEERF to Better Support Students

The sudden and immediate transition to remote learning placed additional demands on the already stressed departments. Luckily, the university was able to use money from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to jumpstart their search for a solution that could ease the known burdens on staff and help provide 24/7 digital support for students.

While CSU Long Beach had long used Ocelot’s online video services, they were eager to expand and adopt the company’s artificially intelligent communication tools and services. They explored Ocelot’s Chatbot as a way to offload some of the student inquiries, making support services more manageable for staff. 

Enter “Elbee”, an AI-powered chatbot, lovingly named after the school’s mascot. While Elbee’s “classroom” may not be the traditional lecture hall, the access, information and support the chatbot provides to students is just as valuable. 

Implementation: Leaning on Knowledgeable Staff

The university went through a three month implementation process to carefully configure Elbee and ensure a successful launch. “We brought together content experts from each department,” explains Tim Gotimer, a Communications Specialist in Enrollment Services who led the implementation process of the technology. 

Gotimer worked closely with his content experts and Ocelot’s customer support team to identify frequently asked questions and appropriate responses. Ensuring that knowledgeable staff members from each department participated in the development stage was key to the program’s success. 

By the time we went live (June of 2020), we were able to answer almost 500 custom questions with Elbee. It was so important for us to include a lot of questions upfront because we were initially supporting three different departments, and we wanted to make a good first impression with users.”

The university’s preparation proved worthwhile. At launch, Elbee boasted a 1.7% “I don’t know” (IDK) rate, a very low number for the platform’s debut, due in large part to the efforts of CSU Long Beach’s staff in advance of launch. 

It was important for the team to get it right from the beginning. Those involved in the implementation were acutely aware that if the Chatbot didn’t make an excellent first impression, users would be unlikely to turn to the tool as a first source for information. 

An Immediate Drop in Call Volume

On the first day, the team watched Elbee’s debut closely. They were eager to see the chatbot’s reception. “We got a couple hundred conversations on day one,” recalls Gotimer. Needless to say, the technology quickly caught on.

At implementation, we immediately saw a 33% decrease in our phone call and email traffic,” says Valdivia. “Students were clearly ready for this tool.”

Valdivia’s department observed a noticeable difference in Monday call volumes, indicating that students were now getting many of their questions answered by the Chatbot on the weekends, when the office was closed. 

Within the first three months, Elbee engaged in more than 23,000 conversations, supporting not just existing students, but prospective students and staff, too. Today, the chatbot participates in 1,600 to 2,000 conversations each week.

The Unexpected: More Than Just Helping Students…

Enrollment Services have since experienced other benefits from the technology. The Chatbot has also provided opportunities for:

  • Training new employees by providing consistent information 
  • Supporting prospective students in their admissions journey, particularly international students who live in a wide range of time zones  
  • Using data analytics from the tool to drive decision making about future projects 
  • Gaining insight into student pain points
  • Offsetting the strain from understaffed departments as the result of return-to-work post-pandemic mandates  

The resource has proven so instrumental that Student Financial Services has already jumped on the Elbee bandwagon. Other departments are eager to get in on the action as well. 

The Future: Expanding Campus-Wide

Though the addition to the school community is still relatively new, it has been successfully embraced by students and staff alike. As such, the team is already looking to expand its capabilities in the near future. 

While Elbee initially only supported three departments (Financial Aid, Admissions and the Registrar’s Office), evolving to campus-wide support is in the near future.

Additionally, CSU Long Beach is expanding their knowledge base, exploring live chat options and hopes to integrate the technology with their PeopleSoft SIS platform. 

The team also recently initiated a test run of Ocelot’s SMS Text Campaigns feature, notifying non-matriculated prospective students of a looming FAFSA deadline. The campaign enabled CSU Long Beach’s Financial Aid Department to support a group that historically has been a challenge to reach.

We’re able to contact [prospective students] the way they’re used to being contacted — over text, not email. We can really catch their attention, which is exciting.”

It’s Not Just About Strengthening Resources, It’s Also About (Lifelong) Learning

Elbee not only makes students’ lives easier, but the tool also helps students grow skills in self-reliance and persistence. 

With so many students attending CSU Long Beach as the first in their family to pursue a college degree, the school community is passionate about the life lessons taking place at their institution. 

Students are tasked with navigating much more than assignments outlined on course syllabi. Understanding what resources are at their disposal and how to seek answers to important questions are some of the most valuable lessons learned at CSU Long Beach.

“There’s a real sense of community ownership of our students across campus, Valdivia explains. “From the president down to those whose responsibilities are face-to-face with students, we want to help our students reach their goals.”

Elbee’s the latest member to take on the charge, empowering and supporting students every step of the way.

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