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CSUN Is Using A Bot To Get Freshmen To Show Up For Class

(Stock photo by Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr Creative Commons)
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The term "summer melt" has nothing to do with global warming -- it's when incoming freshmen who have committed to a college or university don't show up in the fall.

At Cal State Northridge, the summer melt rate is 23 percent. In actual numbers, that means CSUN lost 1,523 students to the phenomenon last year.

To help fix the problem, administrators are turning to the less-than-human.

Enter CSUNny the Chatbot (pronounced "Sunny").

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The university said it's the first in the 23-campus system to use a chatbot that is programmed to guide, nag and hold (metaphoric) hands with students on their way to that first day of class.

And students appear to trust it/him/her.

"[Students] are more willing to ask the bot questions than they are to ask humans," said Elizabeth Adams, associate vice president, undergraduate studies at CSUN. "They know that the bot isn't going to judge them for not knowing things and they don't like making phone calls."

CSU Northridge hopes to cut summer melt of incoming students with CSUNNY the chatbot. (Photo courtesy of AdmitHub)

CSUNny is programmed to ask and answer about 2,000 questions on topics ranging from financial aid deadlines to the best student parking to trivia about the 60 year-old campus.

"It'll joke around with them. It has a bit of a personality," Adams said. "And we're hoping that it helps students feel more like CSUN is a place that cares about them."

For now, the incoming class is having fun with CSUNny. About 98 percent of them, Adams said, chose to get texts from the bot, and between 30-60 percent of those students reply to CSUNny's texts.

The bot texts once a week, and, yes, real humans are poised to step in when more sophisticated thinking is needed on issues like taking out a loan, dropping out, depression, and suicide.

"We're mandatory reporters, so that gets escalated to the proper people, either the student's counselor or, at worst, the police, immediately," said Andrew Magliozzi, CEO of AdmitHub, the company that created the bot.

AdmitHub modeled CSUNny after a so-called virtual assistant or mascot bot that is credited with helping cut the summer melt rate at Georgia State University by 22 percent.

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