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Compelling AI Strategies for Student Success

By Dr. Jim Catanzaro, Executive Director of HERDI South

Image by Naassom Azevedo from Pixabay

Did you see my last post, “AI Meets Higher Education”? It summarized strategies laid out in our initial ACUE webinar for turning the likes of ChatGPT and Bard from threats to academic integrity to accelerators of learning. But, of course, we recognized that the first challenge for most colleges and universities is recruitment. So, in our second webinar we explored a dynamic new approach: connecting a rich array of mental health services with the mechanics of student recruitment. These webinars are part of a series hosted by our HERDI partner, ACUE (The Association of College and University Educators). So far, they’ve been focused on how, using the power of generative AI tools, institutions can amplify their message and improve their performance.

In the second webinar, we focused on strengthening our appeals to prospective students by providing them with confidence they will be fully supported. We believe that can be an indispensable motivator to enroll. The recording is still available here. So, given this through-line, we titled our second ACUE - hosted webinar “Driving Student Recruitment and Mental Health Through Generative AI”. We had a new panel of distinguished presenters: HERDI South Advisory Board member and newly named Chancellor for Austin Community College, Russell Lowery-Hart; Sarah Ketchen Lipson, Associate Professor in Boston University’s School of Public Health; and ACUE’s AI expert, Samin Kahn. Our central focus was on student belonging as key to recruitment as well as to retention.

Insights from the Healthy Minds Findings Sarah, also Principal Investigator of the 2022/2023 Healthy Minds Study, shared several important findings of the Study setting the stage for our discussion. It was incredibly exciting to tap into her deep knowledge of the data. She steered us into this explosive pairing of findings based upon survey responses from a national sample of over 75,000 students from more than 800 institutions: 41% of students surveyed experienced moderate or major depression during the past academic year(!), and a similar percentage of students believed people would think less of them if they received mental health treatment.

The Healthy Minds research, Sarah reported, also confirmed what educators have long suspected: there are strong connections between mental health struggles and academic impairment. Student mental health issues might well be a major cause of the persistent high drop-out rates at many of our institutions. In fact, as Sarah shared, without direct intervention, many students are more likely to drop out rather than access the mental health resources available to them. Not surprisingly, this behavior is stronger in first generation, BIPOC and low - income students. Sarah did share a hopeful finding – that belonging strongly correlates with both mental health and student success. What a perfect transition to Russell, who led the establishment of the extraordinary “Culture of Care” at Amarillo College in Texas!

Award-winning Strategies for Belonging

You may know that this spring Amarillo Community College was awarded, alongside Imperial Valley College (CA), the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Why? Amarillo created, under Russell’s leadership, a stigma-free culture of caring by building robust systems of support for both the mental and physical well-being of their students. These systems expanded traditional healthcare programs for students to their dependents, and they included tutoring, housing, transportation and social services programs. In a few words, Amarillo normalized healthy student behaviors by openly making use of a wide range of mental health resources. The college’s analytics showed that now, their most successful students are those who have sought support for their mental well-being. Very intentionally, Amarillo faculty and staff effectively communicated this to their students, starting at Orientation. At Amarillo, leaders also trained instructors to watch for early warning signs in their students and quickly get them the help they need. Finally, Russell shared that investing in their culture of care had paid off in increased student recruitment, retention and completion. This “ROI” statement led right into Samin’s portion of the program, where he spoke about uses of AI to strengthen recruitment and ACUE’s investment in tools to support retention by closing equity gaps using effective teaching practices.

Success Stories, Notes of Caution

Samin pointed to an AI texting app that has personalized student recruitment at Arizona State University. He also shared that Georgia State University is using a chatbot that fosters equity by providing academic support for first generation students while California State University, Northridge has increased retention and graduation outcomes through the use of AI chatbots. After these compelling examples, Samin closed with a few notes of caution about AI:

  • The technology, and its cultural context, can be biased.

  • ChatGPT is only using data up until 2021 at this point (as of August 2023).

  • It takes time to gain literacy in this new technology and to discover how it can be used most effectively at your college.

This was another amazing panel for our second webinar. In higher ed, we have long-standing challenges and, always, new ones. And we know how important it is to bring in the right people to tackle these challenges. Now we’re learning more about bringing in the right technology to support those people so they can overcome an array of challenges effectively and for the long term.

More to come on this topic soon as we post next about the third webinar in this ACUE series. As moderator, I’ll continue to foster this conversation on AI and higher education. As I mentioned in my previous post, I do appreciate learning how college leaders are working with AI and would love to learn your story. Please reach out to me on LinkedIn or via email.



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