For many first-generation students, the thought of college can be very daunting. Add to it the ever-changing and very confusing financial aid process. From the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), to understanding what aid packages should be accepted, it can be very overwhelming, especially if students are the first in their families to attend college and do not have someone to reach out to for help and guidance.
Fortunately, a collaborative network of partners across Arizona has been working to help increase FAFSA completion rates, anchored by the Arizona FAFSA Challenge, a statewide effort to increase FAFSA completion across the state overseen by the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education. The network led by Arizona State University’s Access ASU, Achieve60AZ, College Success Arizona, AzCAN, and the Be A Leader Foundation has worked across communities to help more students apply for, be admitted to, and ultimately attend and complete college. However, human capital is limited and technology can provide a way to reach more students.
That's why last year, the network was part of the very competitive Schmidt Futures competition. As a result of the competition, the network was awarded a $1 million grant and named as an inaugural partner in the Alliance for the American Dream, a Schmidt Futures initiative. This initial funding was additionally supported by grants from Helios Education Foundation and the Arizona Community Foundation.
Project Benjamin, later named Benji, is a chatbot that families and students can text via phone with FAFSA-related questions like, “Where can I complete the FAFSA?”; “What happens if I am flagged for verification?”; “What is an FSA ID?”
Benji was later given a creative visual identity and social media channels were created to help high schools, guidance counselors, and community organizations across the state share information with families and students.
The 2019-2020 academic year has been the launch year for Benji, who is managed out of ASU and has a dedicated project manager who can manually provide texts to specific situations, as well as a support team from other network organizations. Anyone can text Benji at 602-786-8171 to begin. Once the initial text conversation begins, Benji also asks some identifying questions about the person to be able to organize the data high school student, parent, educator/counselor/volunteer, or other. Users are then categorized by high schools and regions and receive notifications about events and upcoming deadlines.
To ensure more communication with students, 21 high school districts were signed on as partners. Students at those high schools are automatically texted with information about upcoming deadlines as well as community events. The auto-enrollment seemed to be the most effective way to ensure students were notified, rather than relying solely on students to initially text Benji.
So far, Benji has interacted with nearly 15,000 users, the majority of whom are students. Heidi Doxey, Program Manager, Community Initiatives at College Success Arizona, said there are about 300 parents and a few hundred educators who text Benji as well with questions. Most students text Benji on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and the highest-text hours are 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM.
Once a student is in the database after either texting Benji or their phone number being provided by the school, they will receive weekly nudges about deadlines as well as questions regarding FAFSA completion, which students self-report.
One highly-needed function that was added in March was language detection, which uses Google’s language API. Users can now text Benji #language (#Spanish or #French) and set the language in which they would prefer to communicate. This feature may prove to be very useful for parents and families whose first language is not English.
So what impact has Benji made? Given the current worldwide pandemic, a drastic drop-off in FAFSA completion could be expected. However, as of the latest reporting data from the National College Attainment Network, Arizona is only 2.7 percent behind where it was last year in terms of FAFSA completion.
The hope for the 2020 – 2021 academic year and FAFSA cycle is for Benji to assist 25,000 to 30,000 students and families, and increase the number of students who complete the FAFSA.
To learn more about Benji, visit https://www.askbenji.org/.