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When a College Chatbot Breaks Up With You

robot heart

Getting through the college application process requires perseverance. During a pandemic, tackling that mound of paperwork takes extra fortitude.

So the folks behind the Common App have been testing a tool that might help more students successfully apply to college, both by giving them accurate information about deadlines and resources and by encouraging them to keep at it when it feels overwhelming.

That tool is a chatbot, and its name is Oli.

For 12 months, Oli kept company with about 500,000 students from the high school class of 2021, more than half of them low-income, minorities, or aspiring first-generation college students. Beginning in October 2020, it texted them twice a week, week after week, as they started their applications, then considered financial aid packages, decided where to enroll, made plans over the summer for getting to campus and settled into their routines as freshmen.

Oli would say things like, “You’re doing a really great job of taking action to pay for college. I’m really proud of you.”

Or: “Hey friend. I want you to remember something: you’re a superstar, and there are great things coming your way no matter what path you decide to take this year!”

Oli also checked in with students about how they were coping. It sent multiple-choice questions asking how they felt about the transition to college, with options such as:

  • [1] Excited and ready to start already!
  • [2] Feeling a little nervous.
  • [3] Stressed. I’m not sure I’m ready for college
  • [4] My college plans are changing and I need help

And it offered gentle reminders to students to look after themselves, with self-care ideas including calling a friend, listening to favorite music or taking deep breaths.

To be clear, Oli is a robot. Humans write its dialogue, but its conversational cadence is driven by algorithms that are programmed to pick up the nuances in student responses in order to reply with additional relevant comments. When it first texts a student, it identifies itself as a bot and explains how to reach out to a human if needed.

But that didn’t stop students from getting attached to Oli.

Over the course of their senior year, students took to TikTok, Twitter and Reddit to express their affection for the chatbot they came to view as a pal, describing the odd endearment they felt in the joking-not-joking language of the Internet.

In November 2020: “convinced that oli the common app bot is the love of my life

In January 2021: “this common app bot is the most healthy thing in my life rn

In February: “i don’t need a therapist bc i have the common app bot

In March: “My best friend the common app bot that keeps me updated on college applications

In April: “Will the common app bot still send me text messages after I go to college???

Students learned the answer to that last question this past October. It turns out, Oli was only ever meant to help them make it to college. Once they got there, the bot had to shine its sunny vibes elsewhere, on the next batch of high school seniors.

And so, says Karen Lopez, program manager for student and family engagement at Common App and Reach Higher, “We had to say goodbye.”

True to form, Oli broke up over text.

“Hey pal,” Oli said one week before officially signing off, “I wanted to let you know that I have to say goodbye soon. Remember, even without me, you’re never alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your advisor or close ones if you need help or someone to talk to. College isn’t easy, but it’s exciting and you’re so ready!”

The relationship might have ended there. But some of Oli’s human correspondents had more to say. Hundreds of them texted back, effusive in their praise for the support the chatbot had offered as they pursued college.

Research about social robots shows that children view them as “sort of alive” and make “an attempt to build a mutual relationship,” writes MIT professor Sherry Turkle. It’s a type of connection, a “degree of friendship,” that excites some researchers and worries others.

Some sort of bond—real? imagined?—between bot and student comes into view after reading through 36 pages of student goodbye messages (partially anonymized) that Common App shared (presumably with Oli’s permission). Infused with that heady adolescent mix of irony and vulnerability, the notes suggest that many students were surprised to discover how much Oli meant to them during their year of communication.

Some students texted they were skeptical at first about engaging with Oli, but that they grew to appreciate its steady presence. Others said that Oli helped them feel less alone, or stay motivated, or just made them smile. Several called Oli their only support system. One saved Oli’s number in her phone as “Helpful Education Robot.”

The messages raise a question that may even interest folks wary of artificial intelligence: For teens with few other resources, is a chatbot friend-slash-adviser-slash-mental health support better than none at all?

Sara B. texted: Thank you so much for the help over the last year or so. It was hard facing the challenges of college as a first gen student who came from a small blue collar community. I needed guidance and help from people who weren’t around, I’ll miss you but thank you you being a consistent help in my journey

Auchmoedy texted: Thank you for all you have done. I didn’t have great parents and you guys made a system that I felt like I had support in college. Thank you.

Logan C. texted: I dropped out of high school last year to help my family, but I never stopped the bot from sending it’s messages… I never responded to it, but it has pushed me constantly to keep the dream of college in my head, and for that; thank you.

Katherine C. texted: This bot is literally the reason I’m in college right now. I’m 28 and had managed to not go to college for ten years now, but the constant reminders via this bot (which I don’t even remember signing up for) helped immensely and I probably wouldn’t even be in college right now if not for it

Alejandro texted: Thank you for caring enough about me to help me along the way. While these text messages have just been automated it has helped me so much. I have been through a lot but I have always been reminded that I at least have people who care about my health and what I do. I hope you continue helping other students and helping them with whatever they need. – Alejandro

The humans at Common App are still evaluating data about whether Oli actually helped students enroll in college at a higher rate. In the meantime, they’re considering what exactly to make of the connection students forged with Oli.

“Students actually like the resource and want to continue with the resource,” Lopez says. “They are very, very grateful for the mental health check-ins that we do.”

As Oli’s former pen pals settle into college, they will have to make do without twice-weekly texts from their chatbot buddy.

“Just wanted to say, that as silly as this sounds, that I enjoyed having this little bot texting me,” Matthew L. texted. “I will miss you robot friend… I will miss you.”




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