With the largest freshman class in the school’s history – despite a decline in the total number of students graduating from the state’s high schools – the team at the University of Wyoming (UW) has good reason for a whole lot of cowboy cheer. Summer melt is down, student engagement is up, and staff are already strategizing on how to give retention a similar boost.
What’s the secret to UW’s success? While no single factor can take credit for the record-breaking freshman class, it couldn’t have been achieved without a passionate enrollment team, a focus on “right-timed conversations” with students, and a sassy, fun-loving new “staff member” named Cowboy Joe. An artificial intelligence-powered chatbot from Mainstay, Cowboy Joe helped the UW team keep students engaged all summer long.
“Summer can be an ebb or a flow.”
“Wyoming is such a unique university,” explained Katie Carroll, Assistant Director of Orientation and Student Recruitment at the University of Wyoming, which serves around 9,600 undergraduate students. “It’s the only four-year university in the state that has several really strong community colleges.”
UW often gains students over the summer, as some decide to switch from community college to the university. It also loses students who planned on attending but then decided to complete the first two years of their bachelor’s at a community college. This can make predicting fall enrollment particularly challenging.
Part of the problem was the large gap in communication over the summer months. In June, UW hosts orientation programs for admitted students. In the last week of August, students move to campus and classes begin. In between, there were 6–8 weeks without strategic and scheduled student communications.
However, the University of Wyoming had committed to increasing student engagement and success as part of the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities’ (APLU) Powered by Publics initiative. UW had also set a goal of increasing enrollment, especially among freshmen students.
Carroll knew they needed to find a way to keep students engaged and involved throughout the summer.
“We live in an era of immediate response.”
The enrollment team was focused on “meeting students where they want to be met,” but had an issue in that they simply weren’t available when students wanted to engage.
“We do so much from 8 to 5, but students are in school 8 to 3. Then, if they’re in sports or after-school activities, they’re also busy from 8 to 5,” said Carroll. The summer was no different as students worked, interned, attended camp, or participated in other activities. Students wanted immediate responses, even if they had questions at 3AM, but Carroll’s staff couldn’t support 24/7 student communications.
In addition, traditional methods of communication simply weren’t working with Gen Z students. Carroll explained, “we can have a calling project, we can send these students an email, we can leave them a voicemail, and yet responses are minimal.”
However, there was one method that worked: “You send a text message and, within seconds, they have responded.”
UW had tried some text messaging through their CRM system, but it didn’t provide all the features they needed. The team started looking into chatbots.
“We were looking to supercharge text messaging.”
After one of UW’s Admitted Student Day events, Kyle Moore, the university’s Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, approached Carroll with an idea.
At his previous institution, West Texas A&M University, they’d achieved a significant increase in student engagement with the help of a chatbot from Mainstay. Moore thought an Mainstay chatbot could help the University of Wyoming achieve similar results.
It was quickly apparent that Mainstay offered so much more than a simple messaging service:
- Beyond sending mass texts, an Mainstay chatbot can proactively send a tailored series of nudges and surveys to a specific student group
- The chatbot can also offer two-way messaging with students, using artificial intelligence to identify and answer their questions, 24/7
- The data provided is richer and more granular than through other services, allowing staff to get a better view into engagement and conversation topics
- Since Mainstay worked exclusively with higher education, they could offer expert advice and proven best practices for engaging students via text
Soon, they were working with Mainstay to build a custom chatbot for the University of Wyoming: Cowboy Joe.
“It is just so easy.”
Since Carroll worked with the university’s Facebook pages, Moore suggested she become Cowboy Joe’s chatbot manager. At first, she was very anxious about the idea.
“I am not the most tech-savvy person on our staff,” Carroll explained. She wasn’t sure she had the technical know-how to manage a chatbot that ran on artificial intelligence.
Luckily, Carroll’s lack of technical expertise was no barrier at all to managing Cowboy Joe. In fact, it was so easy and replaced so many labor-intensive efforts – such as calling campaigns – that Carroll found she actually had more time to focus on building one-to-one relationships with students.
“It is just so easy,” said Carroll. “And the cool part is you can sit down and spend two to three hours a week working on it – and yet the amount of response and continued conversation is hours beyond that. It’s a very manageable, very easy-to-use product, but the touch and the outcome are so high compared to what I’m able to do on my own via calling campaigns or email.”
The enrollment team ended up saving so many staff hours that they were able to add 9 new states for recruitment travel. The benefits didn’t end there, either. Carroll also found the chatbot led to financial savings, especially as Cowboy Joe replaced many paper communications.
“It’s not just saving the hours of people making phone calls or having to design, print, and mail a publication, there’s been a financial benefit as well because we’ve been able to save on printing and shipping.”
“We’re proud to be cowboys.”
The UW staff weren’t the only ones who immediately took a liking to Cowboy Joe. Students quickly became enamored by the chatbot, with some even texting in to say they loved Cowboy Joe.
Part of the appeal was Cowboy Joe’s “sassy personality,” which was custom-built to reflect the fun-loving and joking, but also warm and welcoming, cowboy persona of the university. Students felt comfortable with the chatbot, often texting in jokes – and getting jokes back in return. Their eagerness to communicate with Cowboy Joe provided Carroll with invaluable insights.
“Students are much more willing to tell Cowboy Joe things than to tell us things,” she commented, “so a lot of the interactive surveys that we’ve done have been super helpful in tracking where students are in the funnel. And for those students that are on the bubble, Cowboy Joe has really been our push over the bubble.”
“We can track the data, statistics, and engagement with Cowboy Joe a lot easier than we’ve been able to do with other text providers,” shared Carroll.
For Residence Life & Dining Services, this resulted in a “change in landscape” as they realized many of their FAQs and support documents weren’t actually addressing the topics students really had questions about.
Between Cowboy Joe’s 24/7 support and improved student resources thanks to the data Mainstay provides, Carroll feels that freshmen arrive on campus feeling more engaged and confident than ever before: “Cowboy Joe helped them find their place here without feeling like they were wearing a bright-colored t-shirt that said ‘help me, I’m a freshman’ on campus.”
“Our biggest win was decreasing summer melt.”
Initially, the University of Wyoming launched Cowboy Joe in spring 2018 with around 2,000 admitted students. Between May and August of that year, Carroll’s team used Cowboy Joe to send 125,000 text messages.
In addition to using data from Cowboy Joe to improve recruitment efforts, Carroll’s been able to share critical conversation data with campus partners who are curious to know what students are asking.
What first amazed Carroll was that only 62 student responses actually came back to the campus for review. She credits this, in part, to the expert support from Mainstay that allowed them to quickly build a knowledge base that can correctly answer more than 1,200 different questions.
“I still think Mainstay must have a massive number of tiny little elves that just don’t sleep,” she joked, adding that their Mainstay partner success manager has been essential to their success, providing helpful guidance and recommendations as they worked to build out messaging and campaigns.
In contrast to previous summers, where there were 6–8 weeks without designed contact from the university, this time students were engaged all summer long. In May and June, Cowboy Joe proactively reminded them about key enrollment steps such as submitting vaccination records, attending orientation, and requesting parking permits. In July and August, students were texted weekly trivia questions that helped them learn about UW’s campus and culture.
When September rolled around, the results were stunning. Summer melt had dropped by 32%. Freshmen enrollment was up 9.5%, shattering the university’s previous record.
“It was a big deal on campus.”
Based on the success of Cowboy Joe, UW has expanded the program beyond confirmed students to all prospective students – roughly 30,000 total – who will get to engage with the chatbot throughout the school year and into the summer. They’re eagerly looking forward to the results of this year’s recruitment efforts, and wondering if they might even break another record.
Amidst all the success, Carroll has run into one major problem: the University of Wyoming only ever intended Cowboy Joe to handle the admissions and enrollment process for incoming students. In the fall, when freshmen discovered that they would no longer be texting with Cowboy Joe now that school had started, they were so upset that they took their concerns all the way up to the dean’s office. They just couldn’t imagine life at UW without Cowboy Joe.
Thankfully, Mainstay offers custom-built retention bots, too. Carroll has already started looking into the possibility of supporting the full student lifecycle – recruitment, admission, enrollment, retention, and graduation – with Mainstay’s AI-powered chatbots.
In the meantime, Carroll loves sharing her Cowboy Joe experiences with UW staff and peers at other institutions.