The study was conducted at East Carolina University (ECU), a four-year college in Greenville, NC with students who had applied to ECU and been offered admission at ECU (“ECU-intending students”) but had not yet completed pre-matriculation or enrollment activities. The study aimed to reduce “summer melt”, which is when students who have passed other enrollment requirements by spring of their senior year of high school, fail to enroll in college in the following fall. The researchers named the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot, PeeDee, after the campus mascot. Generally, 84% of students at ECU were in-state students, and over one-third (34%) received Pell grants. ECU is located in rural, coastal North Carolina, a region with lower-income counties compared with the rest of the state.
Students in the sample were about 18 years old and over half were female (58%). Nearly two-thirds (66%) were White, 15% were Black, 3% were Asian, 1% were Native American, and 6% reported being multiracial. 8% of the sample were Hispanic and 18% were first-generation college students. Slightly more than the college average (87%) students were in-state.
Throughout the summer preceding fall enrollment, intervention group students received text messages from the AI chatbot, PeeDee, with information and reminders about the logistical and administrative tasks they would need to complete in order to successfully matriculate in the fall. There were eight categories of messages that PeeDee sent: introduction (where PeeDee introduced their functionality), orientation (reminding students to register for the orientation sessions and including registration links and deadlines), course registration (reminders and offers of help), housing (information about moving into residence halls and steps required), financial aid messages, social involvement (social media and freshman events), academic exploration and enrollment help), and rapport-building such as trivia and encouraging messages. Messages were tailored to students’ needs so that, for example, students who had already applied for financial aid would not receive reminders about financial aid deadlines. Importantly, students could send text messages to PeeDee, such as requests for follow up information. On average, 26 messages were sent to students (ranging from 3-97 messages) and three were sent to PeeDee from students (ranging from 0-52 messages). Students could also opt out of receiving messages and about 6% opted out of receiving messages.
Students in both the intervention and control groups received business-as-usual communications from the college on topics that included orientation, registration, housing, and setting up a university email account, academic opportunities on the ECU campus, tuition bill information and reminders, and other information intended to help students with social adjustment such as campus events and information about Greenville.