Art Seavey, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recalls a recent site visit to Georgia State University (GSU) where student Austin Birchell demonstrated how he had received financial aid information from an unlikely source: the university’s chat bot. Austin conducted a mock conversation with the bot, asking detailed questions about aid and enrollment, and receiving accurate, tailored advice in response.
As colleges and universities face funding and staffing constraints, scalable technological interventions such as GSU’s chat bot are making a real difference—particularly for students such as Birchell, who are the first in their family to attend college and may have fewer supports.
“It just shows how something as simple as a chat bot can transform someone’s life and ability to attend college,” said Seavey. “Technology doesn’t need to serve as a substitute for guidance counselors or other things. But it can patch up some serious holes.”
Seavey’s work on the foundation’s Postsecondary Success team includes leading the foundation’s investment in the University Innovation Alliance, a network of 11 of the country’s largest institutions. UIA highlights promising practices across the country so that other colleges and universities can learn from their efforts.
Georgia State University, for instance, is a shining example of an institution that dramatically improved its retention and graduation rates the right way. While too many colleges and universities try to boost their graduation rates by “cherry-picking” who they accept—such as limiting the number of low-income students—GSU did the opposite. The university accepted more low-income, minority, and academically struggling students than ever—and then implemented dozens of interventions to help their students be successful.
“Nobody thought about Georgia a few years ago,” said Seavey. “What’s so cool about this is that you get to change people’s perception of what a good institution looks like. We need to look at quality and value in a different way.”
Born in North Carolina and raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Seavey never imagined he’d one day work on postsecondary education. Attending Georgia Tech with an interest in data and decision making, he found himself absorbed in the intricacies of policy and its potential for making an impact.
“I’ve always been interested in how people make decisions,” said Seavey. “It’s usually with their biases, in most cases. And it’s how people typically make decisions in organizations and set priorities.”
His college dreams of working for a think tank and influencing policies to help create a better future for everyone eventually translated into using data to decrease attainment gaps—first as the director of policy and partnership development for the University System of Georgia, and now at the foundation in Seattle.
“I thought, ‘What if we could do what we’re doing in Georgia on a national level?’” said Seavey. “’How do we unleash that potential across all 50 states?’ I had the opportunity to do that at the foundation.”
Yet, Seavey doesn’t describe his work as merely fitting within the confines of education.
“I’ve always seen education as more of a human and economic development issue,” said Seavey. “For me, it’s always been about improving the overall human condition, and helping people unlock their potential.”
Seavey also shared the common misconceptions he hears from legislators and leaders nationwide.
“Some people would say, ‘Not everyone needs to go to college,’” said Seavey. “Then I would ask: ‘How many people do you think are going to college today?’”
According to Census numbers released this year, just over one-third of Americans 25 or older has a college credential. Seavey pointed to that statistic as a sign that we need more—not fewer—Americans with some type of education beyond high school, particularly with two-thirds of jobs now requiring a postsecondary credential.
Seavey also points to factors that prevent a large percentage of Americans—particularly those from low-income backgrounds, people of color and those whose parents didn’t go to college—from getting a postsecondary credential. Whether it’s housing, transportation, food availability, racism, and violence in our community – these systems can encroach upon higher ed, Seavey explains. A key component of the Postsecondary Success team’s approach is using data to increase awareness of the impact of these systems on students’ lives.
“It’s helpful to convey the realities,” said Seavey. “People think about their own experience, when it’s often not valid to extrapolate.”
With an eye on transforming common perceptions of education and eliminating attainment gaps, Seavey will continue to build partnerships with colleges and universities that are implementing bold reforms in higher education.
“At the foundation, we’re here to understand what these institutions need to reach their goals and work toward making them a reality,” said Seavey.