Would students actually like communicating with a chatbot? What about staff? These questions were buzzing around the mind of Daniel Robb, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management at the University of South Carolina Aiken (USC Aiken), as he considered implementing a new AI chatbot for his school.

Today, Robb has his answer: Students don’t like the chatbot – they love it. And his staff does, too! Built by AdmitHub and designed for the unique needs of higher education, USC Aiken’s chatbot has become a favorite tool for the entire campus.

“There’s got to be a better way.”

Nestled in Aiken, South Carolina, the University of South Carolina Aiken is home to more than 3,700  students. 

The staff at USC Aiken works hard to ensure that administrative tasks, such as submitting enrollment deposits or registering for orientation, are easy for students. While the process has improved, each application submitted still had to be processed by the team. That equaled a ton of reading, sorting, and hours spent in the office.

Knowing that, Daniel Robb was determined to figure out a solution that would maintain the school’s signature high level of service for students while increasing his staff’s bandwidth and overall effectiveness.  

While browsing LinkedIn one afternoon, Robb saw a post on Georgia State’s page about an AI-powered chatbot that was making a difference and saving time. Figuring it was worth investigating, he dove into what it would take to bring the idea to the USC Aiken campus. 

How could AI complement the efforts already in place to ensure USC Aiken remained a technology-driven campus?

Robb researched AI and its benefits. The big thing that jumped out to him was the fact that people (especially Gen Z students) communicate via text all the time, and an AI-powered chatbot can maximize the impact of text messaging. 

The more he researched, the more he found stories of schools achieving better results with text messaging as compared to older communication methods such as email, snail mail, and telephone.

“We wanted to meet students where they were (technologically) and stop trying to force them to where we wanted them to be.”

Daniel Robb, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management, USC Aiken

Although he’d been concerned that his colleagues may not like the idea of students chatting with a “robot,” Robb received little to no opposition at all and, in fact, widespread interest, to the idea of an AI-powered chatbot. So, in September of 2018, Robb reached out to AdmitHub.

“I wish we had that.”

USC Aiken’s new chatbot was rolled out without a single hiccup. In fact, thanks to AdmitHub’s straightforward platform and the dedicated support from the AdmitHub team, Robb didn’t even need anyone from his IT staff to help with implementation!

That’s when the buzz started. Ace, as the chatbot was named, was making friends left and right. Prospective students were impressed they could use Facebook Messenger or text messaging to get immediate answers to their questions, instead of clicking through endless links and webpages. At all hours of the day and night, Ace can answer questions, provide helpful links, and guide students through enrollment – making the process a lot less scary to 18-year-olds coming out of high school as well as those looking to finish their education.

Plus, when Ace can’t answer a question or a student requests to speak to a real person, a staff member on campus can be looped in, ensuring no student is left with unanswered questions.

“We heard a lot from our current students as well,” said Robb. “‘Incoming freshman would tell their older brothers, sisters, and current USC Aiken Pacers about Ace. We heard a lot of ‘I wish we had that’ and ‘Why can’t we use that?’ That’s when I realized that we were on to something.”

Ace, the helpful chatbot

Robb and his colleagues sent out a survey at the end of the school year, just to hear what incoming freshmen thought of the experience, because an AI-powered chatbot is such a new concept for the campus.

“We wanted a ‘game changer’ in how we interact with prospective students and Ace, powered by AdmitHub, was just that,” said Robb. “The evidence was loud and clear.” Among students who submitted the Aiken enrollment deposit, the response to Ace was overwhelmingly positive: 

  • 96% found Ace helpful
  • 97% recommended Ace for students interested in USC Aiken
  • 87% thought the number of times Ace communicated with them was “just about right”

Even the vast majority of students who did not end up at USC Aiken (inquiries, applicants, admitted students choosing not to attend) agreed that Ace was a great resource:

  • 76% found Ace helpful
  • 97% recommended Ace for students interested in USC Aiken
  • 87% thought the number of times Ace communicated with them was “just about right”

And that positive buzz has made some noise with other departments as well.

“It’s become the method of communication, not just a method of communication,” noted Robb. “We have Career Services hoping to work with us to let people know about work-study jobs on campus and Financial Aid reaching out as well to see how Ace can be used.”

A bright future

In addition to strong positive feedback from students and other departments, Robb and others at USC Aiken have noticed increases in the timeliness of first-year applications, enrollment deposits, orientation registration, and sign-ups for housing on campus. In fact, USC Aiken noted a huge increase in enrollment deposits before the standard May 1 deadline! 

The chatbot has also allowed USC Aiken to move prospective students through their pipeline much earlier, as well as make sure the documents are in place sooner than previous years.

“In the past, we’ve hosted these events called ‘Saturday Enrollment Express,’” said Robb. “The goal was to get students who had been admitted to our school to come in and make their deposit, figure out housing, go through orientation, etc. Yet, we didn’t do it this year because our students had done so much of what they needed to do already with the help of Ace. The Enrollment Management staff was thrilled to have a few less Saturday commitments!”

At the same time, Ace is supporting and enhancing the daily work of the USC Aiken team. They estimate the chatbot has saved them over 200 staff hours, which the team can now use instead to strengthen their 1:1 relationships with students, respond to more complex and unique inquiries, and focus more on strategic (rather than transactional) work. 

All of this is helping USC Aiken to be more competitive with some of the larger southern schools next door – schools that are often better-funded and boast larger staff. 

Dan Robb USC Aiken
Daniel Robb, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management, USC Aiken

Now, with a successful implementation, USC Aiken is looking to introduce parents and guardians to Ace in the near future and make it a bigger part of USC Aiken. And Robb? He can’t wait to brainstorm what else Ace can tackle next; “I feel as though we have just begun to graze the surface of successes utilizing artificial intelligence in the enrollment process. We are excited for the future of AI and our chatbot … even if we don’t know exactly what that future is!”