With $1.5 trillion in outstanding loans to more than 40 million borrowers, the Federal Student Aid office ought to “provide services on par with world-class financial firms,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday at the office’s annual conference.
In her vision, that means a single website and single phone number instead of numerous, confusing communication options. It means an updated version of the myStudentAid mobile application the Department of Education unveiled in 2018.
And for the first time, it means a chatbot.
Students are always brimming with questions about the financial-aid process, DeVos acknowledged in her remarks, and they’ll soon be able to pose their inquiries to Aidan, the department's new robotic assistant.
The tool, represented by a little owl, will be able to help answer more 800 frequently asked questions about federal student aid.
Aidan will launch in beta on Dec. 22 to a limited number of students, parents and borrowers through StudentAid.gov, according to a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Education. Additional customers will be added throughout 2020, and the chatbot will later be made available through the myStudentAid app.
It is designed to provide “relevant, accessible, and actionable information” and make the federal financial-aid process “modern, streamlined, and simply easier for students,” DeVos said, adding that she wants the process of taking out a student loan to have the feel and support of other consumer-finance transactions, such as buying a car or a house.
With little detailed information available about Aidan in the wake of its birth announcement, it’s too soon to say whether the bot can achieve that goal, Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told EdSurge.
Still,“to the extent this can speed up the process for students to find the information they’re looking for, this could be really helpful,” Coval says.
A Growing Virtual Family
Aidan is the latest chatbot born into a growing federal family. Virtual siblings include Sam, which helps people report scams to the government, and Emma, which answers questions on behalf of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration and Services.
It also has plenty of college-based cousins. In the past year, several software vendors have started selling financial aid chatbot tools—some of them bilingual—and institutions are adopting the services to answer frequently asked questions from students and parents.
According to Coval, these questions can include what the latest interest rates are, how to communicate with loan servicers, when loan repayments start and what repayment expectations are for a student who loses his or her job.
Even when students ask questions too specific for a chatbot to answer, the tool may be able to point them to relevant information more quickly than if they had called a financial aid office and had to wait on hold, Coval says.
“It really fits in with the technology culture we have today, where we can Google something and find something out in an instant,” she explains.
Chatbot tools can benefit financial aid offices, too, which can be burdened with a high volume of calls. For example, adopting a chatbot helps small, private Point University in Georgia provide round-the-clock financial-aid services that the institution says it could not afford to offer if it had to staff its aid office 24-7 with human workers, according to a press release from the university.
The Department of Education designed its chatbot to have personality traits and a conversational tone that mimic a live customer service representative, according to a spokesperson, who says feedback from students, parents and borrowers was incorporated into the final product.
While Aidan’s exact functions remain to be seen, it shares at least one characteristic with its college kin: a cute name.
Students at the University of Alaska at Anchorage can talk money with Spirit. Those at Fullerton College can chat with Buzzybot. And at Point University? Luke Skyhawker, a riff on the school’s mascot.