How Wayne State University supports underserved students with Behavioral Intelligence

Kelly Hughes
Kelly Hughes

October 12, 2021

After graduation rates dipped as low as 26%, Wayne State University (WSU) knew they had to find a way to make higher education more inclusive. WSU is a large public university located in downtown Detroit with a significant population of first-generation, low-income, and minority students. Instead of waiting for their numbers to decline further, the university launched a new strategy to ensure that these traditionally underserved student segments would have the support and resources they needed to succeed. 

Adopting Behavioral Intelligence was a key factor that enabled WSU to quickly mature their student engagement strategy. As a result, they nearly doubled their graduation rates and achieved national recognition in the process. Let’s explore how Wayne State did it.  

Overcoming information overload

The WSU team knew they couldn’t achieve their communications goals unless they removed the barriers that their underserved students faced throughout their educational journey. It wasn’t enough to just make important information available to students on their website. In an effort to level the playing field for underserved students, Wayne State implemented a one-stop support center for incoming freshmen, but staff found themselves inundated with inquiries and constantly behind.

The university recognized that many of their students needed a deeper level of support to navigate the unfamiliar and complex steps to access college and successfully remain enrolled through graduation. This meant redefining communication with students around admissions, enrollment, financial aid, and retention requirements.

The Associate Vice President for Engagement Management at WSU at the time was Dawn Medley. She describes the reason why the university changed its strategy in this way: “It’s not about putting the information out, it’s about people being able to consume it in a way that makes sense for them and in a timeline that works for them. We need to have more culpability and responsibility for helping students to understand and utilize information.”

To better support both students and staff, the WSU team partnered with Mainstay to scale their student engagement. Understanding that most students prefer to communicate via text messaging, WSU worked with Mainstay to create a behaviorally intelligent chatbot named “W the Warrior” who was available 24/7 to text with students.

W offered proactive and reactive support powered by Behavioral intelligence — Mainstay’s unique combination of intelligence, empathy, and contextual relevance. This enabled WSU to automate many of their conversations with students while infusing the bot with a relatable, helpful personality that represented the experience they wanted their students to feel. 

With this new strategy, WSU was able to free up their staff’s capacity so they could spend time on what mattered most — building meaningful relationships with students. Behavioral Intelligence also made it possible for WSU to understand students on a deeper level. That was instrumental in helping the university anticipate students’ needs and spark meaningful conversations at the exact right moment

Supporting students’ needs with intelligence (IQ)

By tapping into the IQ component of Behavioral Intelligence, W helps WSU instantly provide accurate answers to students’ questions at scale — without requiring staff to respond to every inquiry. 

“It comes down to Mainstay handling the majority of first questions, second questions, and third questions, so that my staff can go more in-depth and make the biggest impact,” said Dawn. “We need to be individually connecting with our students if we want them to be successful.”

Mainstay’s behaviorally intelligent chatbots provide 24/7 support on the channels students prefer to use. This means students can text their questions to W and get a relevant response within seconds — even in the middle of the night.

Since W gets smarter with every new student interaction, the number of questions the chatbot can answer grows every day — making it even more effective over time. 

Using empathy (EQ + IQ) to build meaningful connections

Beyond providing around-the-clock answers to students’ questions, W uses empathy to alleviate the anxiety many students felt when asking for help from a real person. This EQ component of Behavioral Intelligence opens the door for honest conversations and more authentic interactions with students. Combining IQ and EQ gives students not only the instant, accurate answers they need, but also the support and encouragement that keeps them on the right path and strengthens their relationship with the school. Using familiar, conversational language also helps to remove the language barriers first-generation or minority students often face.

“Students now see us as a support system, and not just the big behemoth they have to go up against,” Dawn explained. This approach has dramatically improved the way students navigate important processes, as well as their relationships with Wayne State throughout their college journey.

Here’s an example of a conversation that sparked deeper, more meaningful connections between the school and a student:

Building connections with contextual relevance (IQ + EQ + CQ) 

Not only can W field students’ inquiries within seconds, but it also proactively reminds students about upcoming enrollment, housing, and financial aid deadlines, guides them through complex administrative processes, and connects them with the appropriate staff when necessary. 

That’s all possible because WSU employs contextual relevance (CQ) to engage in timely, empathetic, personalized communications at the exact right moment in a student’s journey — but the benefits of CQ don’t end there. WSU also uses contextual relevance to prioritize engagement and inclusion by creating a culture of belonging for all students. Behavioral Intelligence makes this possible by using culture and context to consider the types of conversations that will have the most positive impact on students. For example, students who work full time while attending school may receive a message about financial aid that’s phrased differently than a similar message to students who don’t work. 

By demonstrating that they understand individual students’ challenges and circumstances, WSU is able to cultivate a sense of belonging with every message W sends. That’s not to be underestimated. In fact, focusing on student belonging is proven to drive positive student outcomes, improve student engagement, and contribute to overall health and well-being — making it a critical component of student success. 

Wayne State’s student success results and future plans

It’s clear that WSU’s efforts are paying off. A year after the university shifted to a student engagement strategy powered by Behavioral Intelligence, they welcomed the Class of 2022, which was the largest incoming class in the university’s history. The makeup of that class underscores WSU’s commitment to elevating the underserved student population — it includes:

  • 18% more first-generation college students
  • 13% more Pell-eligible students
  • 28% more Hispanic students
  • 13% more Black students
  • 24% more multiracial students

Next, Wayne State University plans to expand their use of Mainstay’s Student Engagement Platform to further support current students on their path to graduation — and impact the community at large. They’ve also teamed up with the mayor’s office for workforce, regional colleges, and the United Way to provide open access to another behaviorally intelligent chatbot that can get adult learners back on track. The goal of this service, named Detroit Ed 411, is to serve as the first point of contact for educational resources and spark re-engagement in higher education throughout the Detroit Metro Area. 

Support your students with Behavioral Intelligence

Wayne State’s strategic use of Behavioral Intelligence and their unwavering commitment to student success is what made their transformation and record-breaking enrollment results possible. The impact on their student population and the Detroit higher education community is nothing short of extraordinary — and we feel privileged to be part of their journey. 

Read the full case study to learn more and find out how your college or university can take a page from WSU’s student success playbook. 

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