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How AI Enables More Human Connections for SNHU Academic Advisors

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), known for its long-standing innovation and dedication to affordability and accessibility, has embarked on a new initiative to boost student persistence and success through the use of AI technology.

In collaboration with EdSights, a company specializing in conversational AI to aid universities in student support and retention via text messages, SNHU is able to leverage AI to enhance human connections through its high touch advising model.

Through an AI-powered chatbot affectionately named, “Penny,” SNHU and EdSights teamed up to tailor the tool to help identify and prioritize SNHU students who need more support and take on administrative questions to give advisors more time for personal connections. In just over a year since being introduced to SNHU’s online undergraduate population of more than 125,000 learners, Penny has helped move the needle on improving persistence rates, particularly for historically underrepresented groups.

Before launching Penny university-wide, the SNHU team conducted a pilot to test its efficacy in increasing persistence. During the trial, Penny initiated weekly conversations with more than 3,300 students designed to address barriers students most often encounter, including social engagement, academic perceptions, wellness and financial distress. As the model “learned” more about students’ needs, it was able to provide academic advisors with recommendations on individual students to contact for additional support.

The interactive texting tool sends students proactive reminders and resource texts, allowing SNHU advisors to identify students who may be at risk of failing or dropping out, triggering the advisor to reach out to the student. According to Scott Barker, vice president of Student Advisement at SNHU, the introduction of a chatbot was always intended to enhance the experience for not just the students, but also the staff who support them.

“We view Penny as a tool and never something that would replace an advisor,” Barker said. “We believe that there is hands, head, and heart work that needs to be done to help students achieve their goals and our advisors really shine when they are doing the heart work. Technology like a chatbot can reduce the time advisors spend on hands and head work and allows them to spend more time on the heart work. This ultimately is making their work more enjoyable and leads to better student outcomes.”

During the pilot, students sent Penny more than 23,000 texts and most students – 97% – opted to continue receiving texts from Penny after the 2-month pilot project. Students in the pilot also showed a 1.4% increase in persistence rate and a 1.3% rise in success measures compared to a control group.

Results were even better for underrepresented groups, with persistence rates increasing by 2.5% for Black or African American students, 3.5% for Hispanic students and 4.1% for other non-white races.

Since the pilot was expanded to include 125,000 online undergraduate students in February 2023, persistence rates have increased by 1.5-3.2%, with retention rates for first-time students rising by up to 4.6%. Additionally, the opt-in rate has remained steady at 92%.

"By seamlessly integrating Penny into the lives of students and creating a space for them to share their voices, SNHU has gained a comprehensive understanding of their needs, challenges and overall journey,” EdSights wrote in a case study it recently published about the pilot program.

The impact that academic advisors make on a student’s journey at SNHU is often cited by learners when they graduate. In 2022, SNHU received nearly 12,000 nominations from students who wanted the university to recognize their advisor for the SNHU Excellence in Advising award. According to Barker, with each advisor responsible for around 240 students, innovative tools like an AI chatbot are integral to maintaining the level of care they strive to provide.

“They are an advisor around program, policy, help students with belonging, help connect them to the resources, are a life coach, cheerleader, help hold them accountable to goals they have set, and many other functions to completely support the student,” Barker said. “We found that having a single point of contact for many of these things helps a student around where they can go whenever any problem arises, students have shared they don’t like to be passed around and their advisor is the one who can connect them anywhere in the university.”

In the fall of 2023, SNHU expanded its use of Penny to its campus undergraduate students. The goals for Penny’s work with campus students included providing a different level of engagement with students and gathering information SNHU traditionally has not had access to, as well as centralizing and streamlining support to make sure the right staff member is there to assist the right student.

In the first two semesters since launching, SNHU has seen positive engagement with 91% of campus students opting in to receive nudges from Penny. First-year students, first-generation, Hispanic, and Black or African American students had higher engagement (e.g. Hispanic & Black students with 96% and 97% opt in, respectively.)

“We do see Penny increasing engagement with advising as there is a level of safety to reach out to the chatbot first if they want, and from there, it either connects them with their advisor or pushes the advisor to reach out to the student,” Barker said.

Since the initial expansion to online undergraduate students in 2023, Penny has received more than 2.3 million messages from SNHU’s online and campus undergraduate students. Penny’s reach across the university continues to grow with the May 2024 rollout of the tool to SNHU’s more than 24,000 online graduate students.

Moving the needle on persistence is just one way Penny is positively impacting student engagement at SNHU. By integrating Penny into the lives of its learners, SNHU has provided an additional channel for them to share their voices and for the university to get a better understanding of their needs, barriers, and overall journey. By accessing and leveraging these insights, SNHU can be more proactive with issues surfaced and help students with the just-in-time support they need to be successful on the path to their degrees.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.