A new artificial intelligence-fueled chatbot and FAFSA help site aim to digitally remove barriers faced by first-generation American students, children of divorce and others hoping to obtain financial aid to attend college.
It’s about delivering peace of mind to members of CommunityAmerica Credit Union, which developed the technology, said Anita Newton, chief innovation officer for the credit union. The free chatbot and site launched Monday in concert with the opening day of applications for the FAFSA federal financial aid program.
“When we looked at our member base, one of the biggest issues that they’re facing is how to plan and prepare and pay for college,” Newton said. “We have a whole list of things that we know that families are struggling with, and this bubbles to the top.”
CommunityAmerica is the only financial institution to date that has implemented a free college and career planning focus, she said, noting the credit union’s innovation lab found that more than $2 billion in federal aid goes unclaimed because of incorrect or incomplete FAFSA submissions.
The FAFSA help site includes step-by-step videos, tips, and an AI chatbot, dubbed FAFSAchat. Videos on the site explore every question and page on the FAFSA application, with titles like “School Selection,” “Before You Begin,” and “Sign and Submit,” she added.
Another section helps shepherd through applicants whose parents (and potentially finances) have separated, thus complicating the process, Newton said.
“Divorce is a huge thing [facing students]. Our teams can keep coming up with that over and over again. It’s real. It’s probably the hardest thing if you have two sets of parents in different households,” she said. “So we did a specific video on that. It’s not trying to solve world hunger, but it’s really designed to help kids in a way that they need.”
Students can tap the FAFSAchat at any hour with specific inquiries into topics like subsidized loans, or simply typing in difficult questions, she said.
“Any CommunityAmerica member can use that, but we’re going to be partnering with a lot of other schools in the urban area and offering [it even more broadly] because we think that’s super important,” Newton said. “This is a soft launch. We know the [chatbot’s] answers are right, but we’re going to learn and that’s why we picked the chatbot because it’s AI and we will learn when we make mistakes.”
The innovation lab involved youth heavily in the building process, she added, noting help that ranged from YEPKC interns to surveys completed at MECA Challenges, standalone one-day innovation competitions for high-school students organized by the Kansas City Startup Foundation.
“All the questions that all those kids asked … we found answers and then we had a team look at it to make sure it was jargon free,” Newton said of the students who served as a focus group for the help site and chatbot. “We had them test the personality — and I’ve got to be honest, initially they hated our personality — so we’ve changed it a lot, but it’s still a work in process.”
The goal for this project, and the innovation lab as a whole, is working to engage and help Kansas City and CommunityAmerica member base, she said.
“What was so interesting for me was I just assumed there would be a product out there [for helping students complete the FAFSA],” she said. “I did not go in thinking that we should create our own. I certainly didn’t think that we’re going to do a chatbot based on AI. That was never my intention, but you look at everything and you talk to these kids and there’s nothing else out there that’s really speaking to them.”