OLYMPIA — Thousands of high school students in Washington will have a new ally in the financial aid application process, thanks to the rollout of an AI chatbot named “Otter.” Developed by AdmitHub and launched by the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), Otter utilizes conversational AI, familiar to students from popular consumer websites, to provide proactive, personalized guidance to students as they navigate the complexity of college financial aid and enrollment.

Despite having one of the most highly skilled economies in the country, Washington consistently ranks in the bottom ten states for financial aid completion among high school seniors. Last year, Washington ranked 49th in the nation with just 43% of seniors completing financial aid forms. In 2017, more than $50 million in federal aid was left on the table.

Nationwide, the students most likely to benefit from higher education — low-income and first-generation — are least likely to apply for financial aid. Research suggests that AI-enabled nudging and guidance can help overcome this barrier: according to a recent study in Texas, students who received text message reminders from a trusted source were 17 percent more likely to complete a financial aid application.

“Washington now has one of the most affordable higher education environments across the country, but the financial aid process locks too many students out,” said Michael Meotti, Executive Director of WSAC. “Otter’s sophisticated technology provides students with individualized support in a familiar format and voice. We want to connect students with resources that help them thrive in higher education.”

Although the new Washington College Grant fully covers tuition for low-income students at public rates, it can only be accessed if students apply for financial aid. Beginning in fall 2019, Washington has been working to boost financial aid applications through a pilot program that enables high school students to ask Otter questions directly via text message, and receive reminders or “nudges” about key deadlines.

“The process of applying for aid and navigating the enrollment process can be incredibly daunting. AI is enabling colleges and universities to provide support to more students than ever before — in a way that’s secure, personalized, and responsive to their unique needs and challenges. By providing students with real-time answers to common problems, it frees up time for advisors to support those who need it most,” said Drew Magliozzi, Co-Founder and CEO of AdmitHub.