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Can chatbots bring students back?

One of many coronavirus-era issues that colleges are still grappling with is how to regain their pre-pandemic enrollment levels. The drop-off has stung particularly hard at community colleges and other institutions that cater to adult and part-time learners, with community college rolls shrinking by 9.5% — more than twice the rate for all undergraduate programs — during the health crisis, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

But using technology to stay engaged with students disrupted by COVID-19 has helped some schools slow their enrollment declines. National University, a 26-campus chain in California that serves primarily adult learners seeking two-year degrees and certificate programs, recently expanded a chatbot, named NUton, to field its students’ questions about tutoring, financial aid, career counseling and other school resources.

The bot, which had previously been available only through the university’s veterans’ center, has been credited with having an engagement rate 50% greater than traditional communication methods, like emails, and has saved staff about 500 hours per month. The impact has been a 17% boost in student retention, said Brandon Jouganatos, National University’s vice president for enrollment management and student success.

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