Ocean County College faced a challenge familiar to community colleges across the United States: for the sixth consecutive year, its enrollment had continued to decline. To combat this worrying trend, the New Jersey institution sought to streamline the student experience by launching “The Hub,” a one-stop shop for students where they could get all their questions answered, at any time of day or night.
Today, student enrollment is up at Ocean County College (OCC), even as many peer institutions saw their enrollment fall by double digits. Just as importantly, students are actively engaged and supported at every step in the enrollment process. Helping to drive the success of OCC’s enrollment initiatives is an exceptional new “employee”—an AI-powered chatbot from Mainstay.
Setting ambitious goals
To increase enrollment, the team at OCC knew they needed new strategies to minimize barriers that prevented students from successfully completing the enrollment process. One of the biggest challenges was how they were communicating and working with students.
Many processes were siloed or one-way. When students visited OCC’s website, they were frequently faced with unfamiliar vocabulary. When they stepped on campus, they had to navigate through multiple departments. It was easy for students to drop off or miss essential tasks.
The college decided to shift focus and put the student at the center of its service model. Working backward, a one-stop shop named The Hub was designed to be a single source for students to access the information and resources they needed.
To make sure The Hub truly served students’ needs, it was developed around key principals:
- Engage with and respond to students 24/7, especially via text message
- Use accessible language that reflects today’s student experience
- Totally stop the “student shuffle” that often had students bouncing from department to department to get all their questions answered and complete the enrollment process
- Free up staff at other departments, such as financial aid, by answering questions and completing simple transactions across all different topics and departments
A major challenge for the team was that The Hub needed to serve thousands of students with only a few staff members.
Finding the right solution to engage
For The Hub to scale, OCC needed to find a communication solution that would fit its student population. That solution needed to:
- Act as a central source of communication for the students and the college
- Engage with students in the way they speak
- Respond around the clock, 7 days a week, 365 days a year
- Require only a few staff members (1–3) to operate
- Drive real results at an affordable cost
Luckily, OCC found one solution that met all its needs: an AI-powered chatbot developed by Mainstay.
In 2017, OCC became the first community college to partner with Mainstay. With clear goals established—increasing enrollment and degree completion, reducing as many barriers to enrollment as possible, and building a one-stop shop that would continue to evolve and become more helpful over time – the college was eager to implement the new chatbot.
To onboard Ocean’s chatbot, OCC’s Director of Enrollment Services Sheenah Hartigan assembled a team of faculty and students to train their bot on how to answer a variety of questions, ranging from admissions and financial aid to department addresses and even OCC sports trivia.
To infuse the bot with a personality that students would enjoy engaging with, OCC conducted a campus-wide competition for students to vote on a name for the new AI employee. Once students settled on “Reggie,” the bot quickly turned into OCC’s most talked-about staff member.
It certainly helped that Reggie talked like a friendly staff member or even a fellow student. The Mainstay technology behind Reggie allowed the chatbot to respond in language that is familiar to and easily understood by students—very different from the complex, formal terminology so often found in higher education communications.
After the initial training was complete, Hartigan’s team worked with departments across OCC to coordinate communication to students throughout the year. Reggie notified students of important deadlines and events and proactively asked if they needed assistance, often prompting and resolving additional questions from students in the process.
Built for success
Hartigan admits she was anxious about becoming overly reliant on a chatbot as the main point of contact for new students. What would happen if Reggie received a question it didn’t know how to answer? How could she monitor the answers it provided?
Fortunately, Mainstay builds chatbots with these very concerns in mind. Each chatbot uses natural language processing to detect when similar questions are posed in different or unexpected ways, and can even decipher students’ slang, misspellings, abbreviations, and emojis. If Reggie is unsure of how to answer, it redirects the message to a human staff member—which only happens around 2% of the time. Reggie also gets smarter with every new question, learning from student interactions and staff escalations so it can deliver the proper response moving forward.
Thanks to Reggie’s approachable, conversational nature, it quickly became the go-to resource for students in need of answers. In fact, Reggie was so personable that many students assumed it was a real person. Returning students even started calling The Hub—OCC’s one-stop shop—with stories of how they had been texting with Reggie!
Putting students first
Student engagement skyrocketed once students had access to Reggie. Whereas email response rates hovered around 15%, students responded to Reggie’s outreach 26% of the time. This led to more students registering, adding classes, and taking meaningful action towards earning a degree.
Now students could easily access what they needed when they needed it, and because of that, OCC was able to build stronger relationships with their student body. In the first year, students said “thank you” to Reggie 1,369 times. When they weren’t saying it in words, they frequently expressed their gratitude with emojis.
Achieving success in the first year
Very quickly, Reggie showed the enormous impact that a single chatbot can have.
In Reggie’s first year, it answered over 14,000 student questions. Given that it takes a staff member at OCC’s one-stop shop, The Hub, at least two minutes to answer most questions, OCC estimated it saved over 200 hours of staff time. With Reggie handling up to 70% of day-to-day questions, staff had more time to work with students who had unique or special situations.
Instead of technology reducing the human connection, staff found that Reggie was actually strengthening it.
With Reggie supporting its enrollment initiatives in spring 2018, OCC saw year-over-year enrollment gains in the following summer and fall periods.
Without Reggie, it might have been impossible to keep up with the thousands of student questions that flooded in during the enrollment periods. With Reggie, Ocean County College could give students quick answers to their questions and devote more staff time to truly building relationships with students. Every day, OCC is using Reggie to help decrease barriers to enrollment (such as delayed responses, complex technical language, multiple contacts at different departments, etc.) and better serve new students.
After recognizing Reggie’s impact on many college initiatives related to new student enrollment in 2017 and 2018, OCC expanded Reggie’s role. Now, Reggie also works with continuing students, offering action-based nudges, providing early support and intervention, and getting students involved in activities on campus.
The initiatives won’t end there, of course. Ocean County College will always be looking for new ways to better support students to ensure their success. As the college moves to the future, it will count on their chatbot Reggie to strengthen those initiatives.