Hillsborough Community College

Helping students complete their degree

 
 
One of Hillsborough Community College’s primary strategic goals is to foster partnerships that position all programs as catalysts for regional economic impact. A pillar of this goal is to increase the proportion of adults in Hillsborough County with post-secondary credentials to 60% by 2025. To meet this goal, Dr. Paul Nagy, the college’s Vice President for Strategic Planning & Analysis, knew that they needed to do things a bit differently. Using business intelligence software, he found that they had hundreds — if not thousands — of former students who had 15 or fewer credits remaining before they could complete their degree, but hadn’t taken a class for over a year.
 
Identifying these “Near Graduate” students represented progress, but the next step was re-engaging these former students with the ultimate goal of bringing them back to re-enroll and complete their degree. This turned out to be a significant challenge, with limited staff to dedicate to communicating with these students.
 
Thus began a search for a solution that would not attempt to replace staff, but augment them, and would be available to learners 24/7, whenever the students needed it. Dr. Nagy explains, “We tried pilots, but we never could find a solution that was sustainable, scalable, and trackable.” 

Partnering with Mainstay to improve retention and completion

Dr. Nagy was intrigued by how HCC could leverage Mainstay’s AI-powered virtual advisor to connect with Near Grads. The text messaging, 24/7 availability, and machine learning capabilities appealed to HCC, and they decided to move forward with the technology — naming their iteration of the chatbot “Gwen” after HCC’s sixth president, Dr. Gwendolyn Stephenson. 

Gwen (the AI) engages with students, identifies their barriers to completion, and provides solutions specific to each student’s needs. 

Engaging with former students

Gwen targets the students identified as ‘Near Grads’ by HCC’s BI system and offers resources, information, and encouragement based on their specific needs. Dr. Nagy describes the bot as “a conversationalist” who needs to be project-driven: namely, driven to support students and facilitate re-enrollment to completion. 

Here’s how it works.

First, Gwen reaches out to each student with a personalized introduction via text message, letting them know how many credit hours they have remaining to complete their specific degree. If the student chooses to opt in to further interaction with the chatbot, Gwen asks them why they paused their studies when they were so close to getting their degree.

Gwen then provides on-the-spot assistance tailored to that student’s needs. If necessary, Gwen can escalate a conversation to the HCC team when a student needs help she cannot provide. 

The conversation doesn’t stop there. Gwen asks the student if they plan to re-enroll for the next term, gathering helpful data, and sharing empathetic, positive encouragement throughout the journey.

 

Hi Alex, Oli here. Do you plan to re-enroll for the upcoming semester? [Yes] [No]

No

I understand. Whenever you're ready, I'll be here to help you as your personal concierge!

And because HCC identified that financial aid is a priority for their students, they always have Gwen follow up on these re-enrollment conversations by asking students if they need financial aid — another topic Mainstay’s higher ed chatbots are designed to assist with.  

First year results

Of the first 2,629 ‘Near Grads’ identified by HCC’s BI system, Gwen successfully introduced herself to 2,380 students. 1,911 of these students opted in, and 651 chose to further interact with the chatbot. 187 of these students re-enrolled for the fall term, and 151 (81%) of these students completed courses with a GPA above 2.0. In fact, 61 completed their degree — 41 completions that fall, and 20 more the following spring.

These students contributed to a record-breaking 6,219 college completions that year, bringing HCC closer to their goal of contributing to the proportion of adults in Hillsborough County with post-secondary credentials.

Expanding to newly admitted students

After seeing success re-enrolling Near Grads, HCC leadership decided to expand its use of Gwen to newly admitted students for fall 2021 in order to counteract the pandemic’s negative effects on enrollment. They launched a randomized trial to see if Gwen could help admitted students complete steps to enroll. They knew that some of these steps — which include submitting transcripts, providing residency documentation, completing the FAFSA, and a welcome orientation —  can cause issues or feelings of frustration that may keep students from enrolling.

 After seeing that students in the trial group were more likely to complete all of the steps to enroll, Gwen was rolled out to all admitted students for spring and fall 2022. In fall 2022, Gwen communicated with a total of 10,667 admits, of which 36% engaged with the chatbot. HCC’s conversion rate increased by 3 percentage points since they began using Gwen for admit conversion.

Timely reminders and interactive surveys

In the Mainstay platform, HCC set up a comprehensive campaign around Gwen being a new student’s guide and friend on their higher ed journey. Gwen’s introduction to students includes congratulating them on being accepted and letting them know that they are available to help 24/7 to answer questions at any time. 

Once Gwen has been introduced to the student, HCC runs a series of nudges and interactive campaigns to support them through their steps to enroll and ultimately register for their first semester classes. These nudges are designed to provide the information needed to complete each step. Follow-up interactive surveys get a pulse on which steps cause students the most trouble — and connects them with human assistance when necessary. 

For example, they send students who still need to submit transcripts a text reminder along with the different ways to send transcripts and a direct link to their transcript page for more information. The student can reply back to Gwen with additional questions and details regarding transcripts or other issues they may have.

Looking forward

Partnering with Mainstay has given HCC a scalable, sustainable way to engage with students throughout their educational journey, and even bring back students to complete their degree. HCC has also gained greater insight into the barriers students face — from the enrollment process through degree completion. 

So what’s next? 

The Department of Strategic Planning and Analysis has applied for a federal grant to expand the use of Gwen to return stop-outs. HCC has upgraded their BI system so Gwen can advise Near-Grads on what classes they need to take to complete their degree — data from the platform revealed that one of the most frequent questions after telling students how many credits they had left was: “What classes do I need to take?”

Additionally, HCC has begun to use the chatbot to connect with students from an academic success perspective as well. Gwen communicates with a group of students, particularly those taking Calculus, and supports them through the course. For example, she reminds them about resources, tutoring, and office hours to increase success.

Hillsborough Community College

Location
Tampa, FL
Number of Employees
28,000

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