JUNE 9, 2021 — The acronyms around college admissions — FAFSA, EFC, FERPA — can be an alphabet soup of confusion and complexity. For San Antonio high school senior Giulia Mayhua, whose parents are from Peru and speak Spanish as their first language, these represent a few of the many hurdles in her journey toward higher education.
Typically, she’d rely on her counselor at the International School of the Americas for information. But when the pandemic hit and she went fully remote for classes, that communication got harder.
The clock to graduation was ticking, so Mayhua was relieved to discover an easy-to-use, 24/7, college-advising tool using artificial intelligence technology that’s available to students thanks to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), with support from the UTSA Urban Education Institute (UEI).
Mayhua has been using ADVi (short for “advisor”), a chatbot that offers two-way, personalized guidance to help students navigate their way to and through college. The tool uses text messaging to answer questions and give students reminders about things like scholarships and deadlines. If students need additional support, ADVi directs them to live advisors who are trained and funded through a partnership with the College Advising Corps.
“My parents are immigrants and they don’t know anything about the FAFSA or how that and other things work,” Mayhua said. “So it’s been good getting all the reminders and advice. (The chatbot) will say, ‘Do you need help? Have you applied?’ All the further direction definitely helps a lot.”
“At the average high school, the student-to-counselor ratio is about 445:1, making it hard to get personal attention. At UTSA, we look for solutions and ADVi is one of them,” said Mike Villarreal, director of the UEI. “If you are a student with questions about preparing or enrolling in college, ADVi is ready to help you any time of any day. And when you need to talk to a person, ADVi will connect you with a trained professional who can help you with your unique concerns.”
A grant to the UEI from Greater Texas Foundation is helping support the work to test, improve and expand ADVi. A cornerstone of the foundation’s vision is access to and success in postsecondary education.
“We need to get creative and use all the tools at our disposal to help students in their transition to college. Greater Texas Foundation is proud to be a part of innovative ways, such as ADVi, to support as many Texas students as possible,” said Greater Texas Foundation President and CEO Sue McMillin.
THECB had launched a smaller-scale version of the ADVi chatbot when the pandemic hit. Scaling up ADVi at a time when many students had limited access to their campuses and counselors has proved invaluable.
"Texting is a familiar technology that reaches students where they are. Advising students virtually via text breaks down barriers to college education, especially for low-income and first-generation students,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller. “We are eager to continue unlocking potential for students, to help them navigate this particularly challenging time, and achieve their dreams of higher education, and ultimately, a fulfilling career.”
THECB designed the tool through a public-private partnership with AdmitHub. The company’s chatbots are designed to boost enrollment, improve persistence towards college and advance student success. Students can text ADVi questions around how financial aid works, what tests are needed, how to transfer credits, when to apply for scholarships, etc. The more questions students send, the smarter the chatbot gets.
The UEI, with its expertise as a bridge between education research and practice, is lending its development and data analysis skills to the project. It is leading the ongoing study to assess student satisfaction with ADVi in order to improve and expand its knowledge base and technology. High school interns from area schools are helping the team conduct interviews with students for tool prototyping and improvement using qualitative research skills. UEI also has leveraged its access to state and local school, district, education and community leaders to encourage take-up and engagement with ADVi.
“This initiative truly is a win-win for all involved,” Villarreal said. “College-going students in Texas are gaining better access to quality advice and information. The paid high school interns working with us are gaining professional research experience. And our ADVi team is led in part by a UTSA doctoral student. It’s been a very rewarding project.”
Texas students can access ADVi by texting COLLEGE to (512) 829-3687 or by starting a freshman application in the ApplyTexas online college application system. So far, more than 172,000 students have opted in to use the tool, and more than 6,000 one-on-one conversations have occurred.
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