During the mid-2010s, while many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) experienced rapid growth, enrollment rates were declining at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU). The university knew they needed to adapt quickly to continue upholding their mission: To help historically resilient students transform themselves and their world.

That’s when WSSU partnered with Mainstay to redefine what student engagement means at their school by addressing their students’ unique barriers to success by proactively offering crucial support services. The results were remarkable: WSSU increased year-over-year enrollment, improved on-time student payment rates, and nearly doubled their vaccine compliance. 

So, what can you learn from WSSU’s data-driven approach to student engagement? Let’s explore how partnering with Mainstay helped them unlock deeper student engagement — and how you can use the same techniques to drive student success at your own institution. 

Developing a student-centric approach to engagement

In 2017, Winston-Salem State University primarily used traditional communication methods like email, phone calls, and direct mail to provide students with critical information. Those messages often fell flat because they failed to meet students’ communication needs and expectations. This created several barriers to on-campus readiness for many of their prospective and incoming students who missed out on important details from the school. Instead, the volume of students reaching out to WSSU to ask for information increased — which left staff members inundated with incoming calls and messages about enrollment questions. Keeping up with 12,000+ calls per month quickly went from challenging to impossible.

“There was a reputational impact… because students felt like we weren’t responsive,” said Joel Lee, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management at Winston-Salem State University. “We just couldn’t keep up with the volume.”

With so many questions going unanswered, fewer students were prepared to attend school in the fall. Many missed their bill payment deadlines, didn’t get their required immunizations, or failed to submit their enrollment paperwork. That’s when the WSSU team realized it was time to shift to an engagement strategy that put their students first. They came to Mainstay with two primary goals in mind: 

  • Boost immunization compliance from 50% to 90%
  • Increase bill payment rate from 36% to 90%

A new strategy powered by Behavioral Intelligence 

The first step was to develop a holistic student engagement strategy. This meant transitioning to a unified strategy built around driving student success and achieving university-wide goals.

Recognizing the need for a tool that could support this overarching strategy, WSSU searched for a technology partner to help them unlock student engagement through a blend of proactive and reactive support. They were drawn to Mainstay’s Behavioral Intelligence approach because it offered a unique combination of intelligence (IQ), empathy (EQ), and contextual relevance (CQ) that would enable them to measure, predict, and shape behaviors — while empowering students throughout their academic journey. 

Using intelligence (IQ) to support students 24/7

WSSU recognized that they needed to help students complete every step in the enrollment process by providing timely responses to students’ questions. They also knew from experience that emails and phone calls wouldn’t cut it. That’s where intelligent, automated support came into play. 

The IQ component of Behavioral Intelligence is what initially opened the lines of communication between WSSU and their incoming students. They launched “Winston” — a custom SMS text messaging chatbot that could provide answers to students’ questions at scale, without requiring staff to respond to every inquiry. Winston is what enabled the university to instantly and accurately answer students’ questions 24/7. The bot’s continuously expanding knowledge base worked around the clock to reduce call and email volume, track important interactions, and give staff the time they needed to focus on their top priorities.

WSSU’s Vice-Chancellor of Strategic Communications Jamie Hunt says, “With Winston, [students] can engage in a conversation with a bot that’s less scary or less threatening. Rather than admitting you don’t know something, you’re interacting in this two-way format to get that information in a less daunting manner.”

By tapping into IQ, Winston reduced inbound phone calls to enrollment management staff by 36% during the first year. At the same time, read rates for text messages reached 100%. With this improved engagement, WSSU empowered students to complete their necessary enrollment steps, resulting in a 74% improvement in on-time tuition payments for first-time freshmen over the previous year.

Engaging students with empathy (EQ + IQ)

Winston also gave WSSU deeper insight into the tone of voice and specific messages that truly resonated with their students. This made it possible for the university to quickly build meaningful relationships with students. In turn, that rapport with students is what enabled WSSU to boost immunization compliance. After sending out friendly nudges via text to students who hadn’t yet submitted their immunization records, compliance improved by 37%.

In fact, the benefits of the bot’s conversational tone is one of the aspects that WSSU found most surprising. Joel noted that students talk to Winston “like a human.” They show their gratitude for Winston’s help by thanking it and sending emojis as responses. He said, “It was kind of funny the way they engaged with it like they would text a friend. Just seeing how different the engagement was with the text versus the email campaigns we’ve been sending out — the chatbot exceeded my expectations.”

This type of engagement exemplifies the empathy (EQ) aspect of Behavioral Intelligence. Behaviorally intelligent chatbots like Winston are designed with encouraging, warm personalities that open the door for honest conversations. By combining IQ and EQ, WSSU was able to build meaningful relationships with students and provide them with a judgment-free way to communicate their real feelings and opinions.

Mainstay’s Student Engagement Platform also made it easy for WSSU to actively listen at scale to aggregate thoughts, concerns, and insights that students shared with Winston. They used that information to further personalize their conversations and make Winston even more empathetic over time. 

Meeting key moments with contextual relevance (IQ + EQ + CQ)

One of the big challenges around on-campus readiness for first-generation college students is that they don’t always know which questions to ask when they need help. Some students feel the pressure to figure out how to navigate campus systems on their own — without realizing how many resources their school offers to help them succeed. That’s why it’s crucial to offer contextually relevant support. 

To do that, schools need to understand what motivates their students, what they’re unsure about, and what other factors may be impacting their ability to succeed. With that context, you can provide the right information at the right time to guide every student toward the next step in their journey. By infusing Behavioral Intelligence into their engagement strategy, WSSU gained a deeper understanding of their students — making it possible to anticipate their needs and respond in a warm, conversational way that drives positive outcomes across a wide range of topics.

WSSU uses the contextual relevance (CQ) component of Behavioral Intelligence to provide individualized and authentic support for students at the exact right moment. By supporting students with intelligence, empathy, and contextual relevance, WSSU anticipates their unique needs and responds in ways that drive action and engagement. 

Combining intelligent support, empathy, and contextual relevance has sparked many positive student outcomes, particularly when it comes to retention. “One pain point I hear all the time is that students leave for the summer, and then they don’t register for fall classes until they come back, and that’s kind of risky because they’re not really committed to returning,” said Joel.

Winston uses intelligence, empathy, and context to remove barriers to success and help students feel heard and understood — which goes a long way in improving a student’s sense of belonging. For example, as the start of the semester neared, the staff sent important reminders along with words of encouragement like “You’re so close!” or “Don’t give up!” to students who had not yet enrolled.  

Learn more about the ways WSSU uses Behavioral Intelligence 

By embracing a student engagement strategy powered by Behavioral Intelligence, Winston-Salem State University was able to bridge the gap between students and their school and significantly increased on-campus enrollment in just one year. Read the full case study to find out more about how they did it — and learn how you can, too.